Guest Column | December 11, 2017

Real-Time Collection System Monitoring Is Saving Ratepayers Millions

Real-Time Collection System Monitoring Is Saving Ratepayers Millions

A successful pilot program for the San Antonio Water System (SAWS) is expanding to encompass the nation’s widest deployment of smart infrastructure in sewer collection systems. Such technology is lowering operating costs by millions of dollars, reducing pressure on rates, and dramatically decreasing the risk of sewer overflows. The decision reflects a growing trend of using collection system technologies to reduce maintenance and help limit rate increases.

The San Antonio Water System (SAWS) is in the process of strategically deploying 200 SmartCover Systems real-time remote sensors to keep a high-tech eye on troubled pipeline segments citywide.  These units will join more than 300 current sensors used to monitor high-risk pipes, increasing the smart monitoring network to more than 500 sites.

This massive deployment is considered the largest of its kind by one of the largest and most innovative utilities in the country. The sensor network continuously monitors sewer flows and provides SAWS with the ability to “see” how its pipelines are faring. The SmartCover network includes a proprietary software platform which puts the right information at the right time at the fingertips of operators so they can make real-time actionable decisions, leading to saved money and extending the lifetime of pipes.

“Our system is like an EKG for the sewer,” said Greg Quist, CEO of SCS. “We combine real-time flow data with advanced analytics to give SAWS the ability to visualize the health of their pipelines and detect small trends that anticipate future problems. Our SmartClean program provides real-time condition assessment of the collection system and puts SAWS in the position of being proactive rather than reactive.”

Resulting data eliminates unnecessary maintenance and redundant cleaning previously scheduled to ensure sufficient flow capacity. Less cleaning reduces operational costs and demands, decreases wear and tear on pipes, and lessens staff labor, all while maintaining 24/7 protection from overflows. In 2014 alone, the SAWS SmartCover system prevented more than 500 potential sewer system overflows at locations with a high risk due to the structural condition, grease, debris, or roots.

Quist’s focus is on saving money for water agencies and, therefore, limiting the impact of higher rates. He indicated other examples of how new technology has done that in recent years.

Skiing Happily Ever After

The small but majestic ski haven of Mt. Crested Butte, CO, got an unwelcome Christmas Day surprise a while ago: a 500,000-gallon sewer spill caused by all manner of construction debris, clogging its main Gothic Avenue pipeline. Once an energetic bucket brigade handled that problem, the town faced a bigger one: the state decreed a moratorium on building until a larger sewer system could be built.

Fortunately, an engineering study indicated that the system was adequate but needed a monitoring system to prevent overflows. The town leaders quickly installed a nine-unit SmartCover Systems solution that monitors continually through satellite-based communication. The result: Mt. Crested Butte saved a $10-to-$20 million capital expense, the state is happy, taxpayers are happy, and the town is skiing happily ever after.

99% Perfect

The City of Hawthorne, CA, hometown of SpaceX and the Beach Boys, operates a sewage system with 94 miles of gravity pipelines, no lift stations, no treatment, and just two full-time collection staff. Prior to 2006, the city experienced about 10 sewer overflows annually at a cost of about $400,000 in cleanup, mitigation, fines, and legal fees.

But things changed dramatically with the installation of 50 real-time, remote sensors monitoring 66 system “hot spots” for dirt, grit, and other debris. Since that installation, Hawthorne has experienced but one overflow, a decrease of 99 percent, and has saved upwards of $2 million.

Real-Time Collection-System Monitoring Eliminates Guesswork

These cases illustrate a valuable tool for agencies facing similar problems, from senior managers to risk and asset managers to operations staff. Quist adds: “You get a more manageable workload and avoid costly emergency repairs and the regulatory fines that often accompany them. And your entire team gets a better night’s sleep!”

Just as the ability to “see” the flow in your sewer system prevents problems, real-time condition assessment also keeps turmoil to a minimum in rate discussions above-ground. Collection system visibility enables more effective pipeline monitoring. That prevents overflows and reduces maintenance costs, both problems that can result in rate increases.                               

Today’s real-time wireless communications — connecting field to headquarters — monitors sewer system flows to uncover and alert agency staff to potential damaging overflows before they happen. Recognizing which pipelines require more maintenance and which can be left for later also improves a utility’s ability to protect those assets and plan maintenance schedules more accurately.

SAWS’ leadership and vision has been recognized by AccelerateH2O, a Texas-based organization focused on bringing innovative practices, novel technologies, and water utilities together.

“We presented SAWS with the annual Innovator of the Year Award to highlight its early adoption of innovative solutions. SAWS exemplifies successful collaborations and partnerships necessary for solving urgent challenges through data analytics and instrumentation that transforms operations and reduces costs for ratepayers,” said Richard Seline, executive director of AccelerateH2O.

Image credit: "Grid," Phoebe Baker 2010, used under an Attribution 2.0 Generic license: