By Greg Quist
Most of us don’t have to think about the vital infrastructure that supports our society. Water is delivered to our homes and businesses 24/7, and wastewater is efficiently and cleanly whisked away. The ability of our utilities to manage these services means we only take notice at times of inconvenience: water outages, sewer blockages, or stormwater overflows.
Storm Clouds on the Horizon
While our utility staffs work diligently to avoid any issues, the confluence of aging infrastructure, population growth and a more volatile water cycle is presenting challenges beyond the capacity of our existing systems. As a result, the U.S. EPA estimates that approximately 75,000 sanitary sewer overflows (SSO) occur annually in the US, discharging almost a trillion gallons of untreated wastewater into our waterways and environment. Far from just an aesthetic or environmental issue, exposure to contaminated recreational waters from SSOs and CSOs contributes to up to 3,700 illnesses a year.,
In a dedicated effort to remedy the current situation, the USEPA has stepped up enforcement of non-point source discharges with cities entering into multimillion- and multibillion-dollar consent decrees to address the impact of wet weather and collection system capacity limitations. Unfortunately, many of the proposed solutions perpetuate an old-school approach: pour concrete into the ground and build more and bigger systems.
However, in an era where utilities are already experiencing declining revenue, increasing costs, and opposition to rate hikes, it is imperative we maximize the capacity of our existing capital investments before undertaking the wholesale construction or replacement of our wet-weather and sewer infrastructure. Unfortunately, despite the value of our sewer and stormwater collection systems in protecting environmental and public health, the understandably conservative nature of the industry has generally delayed application of 21st century technology to understanding the real-time condition of our sewer infrastructure. Consequently, our sewer collection systems are often invisible: un-instrumented, uncontrolled, and unwatched. So we cannot optimize their utility or their value.
With technology readily available and in-service today, utilities can access data-driven options to avoid encumbering our cities with unaffordable capital obligations. Before investing in massive infrastructure rebuilds, we should seek to answer these questions: Can we extract capacity from our existing infrastructure using technology? Can we leverage the power of affordable cloud-based services to bring advanced sensor and analytics tools to optimize performance? Can we better protect public health by understanding the real-time condition of our infrastructure through affordable sensor and communication strategies? In short, can we use our own data clouds to defend against storm clouds?
The Cloud vs the Clouds
By design, a sewer collection system is distributed — reaching the full breadth and extent of a community. This has complicated ability to acquire real-time operational data. Rapid innovation in sensors and economies of scale in communication are simplifying the problem. Wireless (e.g., dedicated, cellular, satellite) communication is now widely available in most areas — at costs that are well within reach for the typical utility. Improvements in battery life and optimized power requirements are redefining the sensor network. Integrated, cloud-based data storage and analytics services means sewer system operators now have unparalleled access to monitor and control collection systems to improve operational performance. These services are affordable, reliable, and do not burden utility information technology systems. In fact, they can provide a positive return on investment, increase efficiency and lower the costs to consumers.
The benefits of these innovations are re-writing the way we manage our collection systems, providing our wastewater collection system operators with the ability to actively:
- Reduce or eliminate sewer backups and street flooding.
- Reduce or eliminate SSOs.
- Reduce or eliminate CSOs (combined sewer overflows).
- Manage/reduce energy consumption.
- Avoid excessive sediment deposition in the sewers.
- Optimize cleaning routines.
- Manage flows during an unplanned (not anticipated) system disturbance, such as major equipment failure or security-related incidents.
- Manage the rate of flow arriving at the wastewater treatment plant.
Most importantly, understanding the condition of our collections systems in real time means we can continue to protect public health at lower operational and capital costs. For example, the City of Newburgh, NY deployed SmartCover Systems sensors and platform to provide city staff and the public real-time notification of CSO events while also addressing the regulatory reporting and public notification requirements.
SmartCover Systems connects operators with their infrastructure allowing data-driven control of these events in real time. This information is available from cloud-based services at any time, through any internet-connected device, anywhere, providing cities with the information necessary to get the most out of their stormwater management systems. A recent news broadcast highlighted the effectiveness of using data to better operate stormwater systems, detailing SmartCover Systems role in significantly reducing flooding events in Toronto, ON.
The Rainbow after the Storm
SmartCover Systems is leading the drive for intelligence in our sewer systems. Cloud-based services for managing collection systems offer unique opportunities for utilities to extend the capacity of existing infrastructure and reduce the costs of SSO and CSO control. The ability to install sensors with integrated communication technology in any location is increasing our understanding of the dynamic conditions existing in our sewers and improving operations, lowering costs. With these data, we can better predict, control, and prevent any overflow condition, optimize existing infrastructure, and protect public health in an efficient and affordable manner.
It’s the promise of a rainbow after the storm.
Greg Quist is the cofounder, president, and CEO of SmartCover Systems, where he leads the strategic direction and operations of the company. Greg is a longtime member of the water community. He was elected to the Rincon del Diablo MWD board of directors in 1990 and for the past 27 years has served in various roles, including president and treasurer. He is currently the chairman of the Urban Water Institute. With a background in wireless communications and system integration, Greg has worked as a technologist, manager, and executive at Alcoa, McDonnell-Douglas, and SAIC. He has held top-level government clearances and holds 14 patents and has several pending. Greg has an undergraduate degree in astrophysics with a minor in economics from Yale, where he played football and baseball. He also holds a PhD in physics from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
 USEPA, Addressing the Challenge Through INNOVATION, Office of Research and Development National Risk Management Research Laboratory
 Failure to Act – “The Economic Impact of Current Investment Trends in Water and Wastewater Treatment Infrastructure. “American Society of Civil Engineers, 2011.
 USEPA, Smart Data Infrastructure for Wet Weather Control and Decision Support, August 2018 (EPA 830-B17-004)