Guest Column | January 10, 2019

Beyond Binary: Data Tells A Compelling Story

By Dr. Andrew Shaw


The big problem with Big Data has always been turning all that information into action. A recent survey reveals how far utilities have come and what might come next.

From the world of sports statistics, to the gigabits of entertainment streaming to our televisions, to the staggering amount of information flowing between our infrastructure systems, data tells millions of stories every day. Untold streams of information rush across networked systems, telling tales big and small about performance and the health of our critical systems.

But as we move into 2019, are we ready to listen to what the data is actually telling us? With an overwhelming amount of information available through monitoring systems and sensors, how do we mine and analyze that information to make the best decisions about our assets? It’s a useful question when it comes to water and wastewater infrastructure: What can data say about the health of pumps, integrity of pipes, energy consumption, or assets that may be reaching the end of their lifecycle?

How organizations use data to see their systems in new ways — and establish key performance indicators (KPIs) that inform planning — is especially critical as more water resource recovery facilities ponder their spending on energy. For most water and wastewater treatment providers, electricity trails only labor costs as the highest operating expense. Additionally, fossil fuels are the basis of most purchased energy, which contributes to carbon footprints and public health risks due to air pollution by the wastewater sector.

So, what can data tell us about both asset management and energy efficiency? First, let’s consider how the industry broadly views energy management. In an industry that constantly manages aging infrastructure with constrained budgets, water and wastewater treatment sites are traditionally among a public community’s biggest single users of electricity, given the pumps, blowers, and other equipment that run around the clock.

Black & Veatch’s 2018 Strategic Directions: Water Report found that only a little more than one-third of respondents have an actual foundational energy master plan. Half of those respondents said their plan could not be considered comprehensive, while an additional 30 percent were not sure if they had any energy master plan. Another one in four respondents said piecing together such a plan was not in the works.

Utilities identified monitoring performance, asset maintenance, and treatment operations as the top three operational areas that data analytics and automated monitoring would help improve most.

Still, according to the survey, many say they’re taking steps to control electricity costs, with nearly one of every three respondents saying they either have made capital investments in power efficiency upgrades in the past three years, or they have partnered with a local electric utility on demand-response programs. Such investments may include installing more efficient pumps, aerators, and blowers. Less than 10 percent of respondents, however, said they were considering new or additional on-site power generation.

What can data say about the health of pumps, integrity of pipes, energy consumption, or assets that may be reaching the end of their lifecycle?

Performance On The Plains: A Case Study On The Value Of KPIs

Water providers are increasingly sensing the broad operational advantages data can deliver. In our 2017 Strategic Directions Water Industry Report, only 10 percent of survey respondents were utilizing cloud-based software across all parts of their business; this year that figure jumped to 28 percent.

Utilities identified monitoring performance, asset maintenance, and treatment operations as the top three operational areas that data analytics and automated monitoring would help improve most. These focus areas appear to be where utilities can best leverage data to lower operating costs, optimize processes, and extend asset life, which are some of the leading industry challenges identified in this year’s report.

At a time when public demand to do more with less is a constant drumbeat in the ears of water utility operators, the recent challenge from a Midwestern city utilities manager sounded very familiar. The city’s 10-MGD wastewater treatment plant, originally built in the 1950s, was becoming costlier to operate and maintain, and managers were getting very little information or insights on where their dollars were going.

Drawing from their experience gathered from the power-generation industry, Atonix Digital, a subsidiary of Black & Veatch, has developed a unified data platform called ASSET360© that can manage the data that water reclamation facilities (WRF) and other utilities or industries collect from laboratory systems and supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA). The platform has been implemented at the WRF to monitor process performance weekly and diagnose plant upsets. The tool has allowed process engineers to monitor the plant, communicate process recommendations, summarize plant performance on a quarterly basis, as well as identify opportunities for cost-savings.

Under the unified platform, various applications can analyze data and create plots, business intelligence reports, diagnose process upsets, and identify data outside of operational limits. Energy and chemical costs are calculated per unit flow and displayed on the user interface for a quick indication of the breakdown of costs and energy by asset and source.

WRF tags are organized into an asset framework hierarchy that allows data and plots from specific processes to be viewed in a single location. KPI calculations are aggregated into the overall plant asset framework and are used to gain a perspective of overall plant performance. The ultimate goal is to provide predictive analytics by optimizing plant performance and identifying process upsets with alerts before they become costly problems.

Black & Veatch provided and installed a data integration server onto the city’s network to communicate with the relevant data sources and create a copy of those data sources within a single database. The server then transmits the data securely via web services to a data center where analytics can be applied.

Data’s Emerging Role

That utility’s history with data is fairly typical; utilities have never been short on data. But they’ve historically used that information to perform traditional tasks.

As the era of Big Data advances, water utilities will be able to deploy advanced sensors that can pick up previously undetectable changes in infrastructure performance. These predictive technologies will help companies anticipate equipment failures and leaks, as well as build a roadmap of how best to replace capital equipment. Going from reactive to proactive helps managers develop new opportunities for cost control, risk management, and improving levels of service.

Today’s analytics platforms move us from data harvesting to data science that can guide a utility as it plans for a safe and abundant water supply.

About The Author

Andrew Shaw is a global practice and technology leader in sustainability and wastewater for Black & Veatch. He has more than 25 years of experience in wastewater treatment in the U.K., Australia, Asia, and North America. His expertise includes nutrient removal, computer modeling, instrumentation, process optimization, and lifecycle assessments.