COVID Highlights Some Issues
There are a few issues that water systems are having to deal with in the midst of the COVID pandemic. These issues aren’t particularly new, COVID19 has just highlighted difficulties the industry was already facing and might have been reticent to address.
Increased water usage: Most of the country's (and world’s) population have had to shelter in place. While sheltering in place we are advised to wash hands, which means using more water than before, and this is increasing the need for water utility operators to increase service levels.
Reducing staff size: Compounding the issue of increased water usage in homes is the requirement to reduce staff/technician shift teams to ensure social distancing is maintained. But the industry was already facing ~30% attrition, especially at the technician and engineer cadre.
Archaic tools and processes: There has been a shortage of Personal Protective Equipment across the country. Essential workers have been doing their work with PPE but, as we’ve seen with the hospitals on the frontline dealing with COVID19, it is unlikely the water systems had PPE just lying around. Water utility technicians have been using archaic equipment (paper logs, inefficient and error-laden physical water sampling from remote locations, etc) and this period where the technicians can’t actually be in those locations increases the inefficiency of these archaic tools and approaches.
Reducing revenues: Collections for outstanding bills, which was rising by 2% before COVID19, and would have enabled the water systems to collect money from the customers who fail to pay, have (understandably) been frozen across many states. But revenue reductions are something that water systems cannot afford especially in these times.
Throw in the anecdotal information we’ve gotten that suggests some water systems managers have absenteeism within their ranks and the problems are compounding for water systems right now. While technology doesn’t solve all these problems, suggestions like ‘install cameras in plant control rooms that show the levels and monitors of critical process units so that they can be clearly seen by an operator from his/her laptop at home. This could create a virtual control room.’ are counter to the approach that water systems should take. For one, installing cameras in plant control… ignore the cybersecurity issues that come with increasing the instances of data transfer (level data from asset to cloud, encrypted data from cloud to plant/control room, image data from the control room to cell tower, cell tower data to laptop). And that’s just one problem with the solution offered above.
So what are the solutions available now that enable an industry future that works? What is the near and long term future of the drinking water industry? Particularly for the key areas (the utility 4 P’s) of process, policy, product, and people?
(Near) Future of Processes
Connected devices that enable efficiencies in data collection, analysis, and optimization of resources and assets.
Current water system operations could be more efficient. The industry knows that technology to optimize processes is available. But there has been a reluctance to move forward. A reluctance hurdle that COVID19 could help overcome. The requirements of this time can bring a cultural shift across the industry to recognize that we have the advanced technology required to remotely and efficiently deliver clean drinking water to citizens. Some of these technologies include:
IoT: these are basically data-gathering sensors placed within the water system (to gather water quality data) and on assets (to capture asset behavior).
Data Analytics: The data that comes from the sensors or IoT devices can then be stored in the cloud (and clouds are secure!) enabling the utilization of machine learning for anomaly detection (predictive trending, if you will, of how a contaminant plume might flow through a distribution system) and resource optimization (to address any issues identified, optimally)
3D visualization that enables digital representation of the physical assets of a water system: Once the sensors are in place, then the assets can be monitored at a level that enables 3D modeling that simulates a technician being in the (for e.g.) booster station.
These technologies address the process-related issues identified above not just for the immediate situation but for the future of the industry.
As more cities mandate water reconnections and deferment of water service stoppage, water systems across the country face a decision that they’ve been putting off for a while; dissociating revenue from the volume of water used by a customer. They can run the future business model experiment, while providing clean water, with little fear of suffering the impact of failure.
Service is what water utility customers pay for, in their minds at least. And the current narrative is that the service the water system provides isn’t a great one or there is no ‘service’ behind the water coming out of their taps. Hence the unwillingness to pay more for tap water at the same time there is a willingness to pay 300X for bottled water. With improvements in processes, as outlined above, it’ll be easier to provide better service. And who doesn’t want the water industry to get better?
(Near) Future of Product
New approaches to cleaning the water consumers drink.
98% of the 50,000 US water systems use chlorine as part of a disinfection process to provide safe drinking water. And this process has been, for the most part, the same since 1908. The product of water, clean drinking water, from all forms of wastewater needs to be improved through the use of new filtration/decontamination approaches like, for example, reverse osmosis. The process, using several layers of permeable membrane to remove ions/molecules/particles from the water, is an improvement on the current chlorination approach. It is also a process that has seen low adoption rates due to the ‘if it ain’t broken, don’t fix it’ perspective on Chlorination. Considering the tens of thousands of chemicals we’ve created (and dump in our water system) since the turn of the century, Chlorine disinfection might be a weapon for fighting an old battle. COVID19 gives water systems an excuse to utilize new approaches to ensure the best product. At the least, the water systems should get visibility into how the Chlorine is decaying within the distribution network.
(Near) Future of People
Putting advanced tools and techniques in the hands of an upskilled workforce.
A day in the life of a water utility tech currently involves moving between analog work experiences (physically collecting samples from a Maximum Residence Time site 20 miles away from the treatment plant) to digital immersive experiences (playing Call of Duty or Fortnite with their friends across town). I’ve experienced this several times in water treatment plant workshops over the last year or so. There are two extremes of talent in the industry; a crop of experienced technicians/leaders retiring soon and a young digital native living in an analog world. What the Fortnite example highlights is that these technicians are ready for 3D models of the distribution system (something Varuna is currently building in partnership with engineering firms) to enable remote monitoring and management of distributed water network assets.
For the utility employees and decision-makers who aren’t quite there yet or weren’t willing to move into what seemed like a far-future version of this industry, this pandemic is proving that the future is here, now. Disaster response creates a sense of urgency and change is created when we face disaster. Let’s use this pandemic to move the water industry forward and make the changes we need to make, today.