Guest Column | September 8, 2023

The Digital Imperative: How Technology Has Become Essential To Solving Water

By Michele Samuels


Understanding the value of going digital, as well as the process of getting there.

As innovative utilities around the world continue to implement advanced solutions, we often hear of the “Aha!” moments that have reaffirmed digital strategies in the minds of water leaders.

Sometimes referred to as “turning on the lights,” these moments represent greater visibility — the ability to see utility operations clearly, without the murky shadows of outdated systems, data deluges, and information silos.

Suddenly, operators are empowered to bridge the gap between data and decision-making, delivering transformative outcomes for their communities as a result.

Often, we see utilities beginning to implement digital solutions to meet regulatory requirements, but that’s usually only a fraction of the improvements they can achieve.

Take the Metropolitan Sewer District (MSD) of Greater Cincinnati, for example. Serving a population of more than 850,000 people across 290 square miles, the utility operates combined stormwater and sanitary sewer systems — some of which were constructed more than a century ago. Dealing with increased volumes of sewer overflows, and with mitigation costs proving far too much to pass along to ratepayers, the utility turned to digital to optimize.

To get better control over its buried sewer system, the utility deployed a real-time decision support solution that delivers automated, optimized control. The utility then took its combined sewer overflow (CSO) monitoring data, flow monitors, and real-time control facilities, and tied them together in a SCADA system. According to Reese Johnson, compliance services division superintendent, “The insights were mind-blowing.”

Thanks to that enhanced level of visibility, MSD had its “aha” moment and was able to reduce sewer overflow volumes by 247 million gallons and save US$38 million in the process.

By tapping into the power of data and analytics, MSD could unpack what was happening across its entire sewer system and maximize its existing assets. The beauty of that enhanced visibility is the greater situational awareness it brings. The utility can now address the critical challenges of today, while getting ahead of the problems of tomorrow.

Going Digital Is Not An Outcome

As MSD demonstrated, digital is not an outcome but a way to solve problems. From working inside water utilities and collaborating closely with leaders and operators, we have seen the complexities involved in keeping the taps running and water moving. We’ve also seen the powerful impact that digital solutions can have on utility operations, no matter where a utility is on its digital transformation journey.

Successful transformation means finding a sustainable pace of change, putting quality data to work, and building thoughtfully on each success.

Often, we see utilities beginning to implement digital solutions to meet regulatory requirements, but that’s usually only a fraction of the improvements they can achieve. Increasing layers of data can be added across utility operations — at asset, process, and system levels — to drive huge business and community impacts.

For example, when it comes to intelligent asset management, innovative solutions are allowing operators to get a handle on the current picture to make faster decisions. By simply “turning on the lights” within their system, utilities aren’t relying on age alone to manage critical assets. Advanced digital solutions are empowering them to understand what assets they have, their location and specification, and — crucially — their condition.

In Canada, EPCOR Water Services provides water and wastewater services to more than 85 communities. The utility serves 800,000 people in the Edmonton, Alberta region alone and has assumed ownership of smaller regional utilities as the city expands. One of those was the Northside Pipeline, a 16.7-km (10.4-mile) water main comprised of prestressed concrete cylinder pipes (PCCP) that provide drinking water to around 60,000 people.

The average life expectancy of PCCP mains can range from 50 to 100 years, depending on design, manufacturing, installation, and operation. At 40 years old, the Northside Pipeline was getting close to that range. While the pipeline had no documented history of failures, anecdotal tales of leaks and breaks marred its history.

While PCCP mains failures are rare, they can be catastrophic to local communities, causing significant flooding and damage, as well as disrupting other critical infrastructure. To understand exactly what was going on, EPCOR wanted hard data. Using advanced sensing tools, including electromagnetic and acoustic monitoring inspections, the utility rolled out an advanced condition assessment program to evaluate the health of a 9.4-km (5.8-mile) section of the pipeline.

Using digital technology to analyze, distill, and consolidate the resulting data, EPCOR could pinpoint “trouble spots” within the pipeline network — including leaks and signs of pipe deterioration. While 99.2% of the inspected pipe sections were in good service condition, it found 10 pipes with distress, ranging from low-level deterioration to more significant damage, and three leaks.

Rather than wait for a disruption of service, the utility could now proactively address structural weaknesses and optimize its pipeline rehabilitation and replacement program, deploying resources to the areas that matter most. Not only has the utility saved on pipeline replacement costs, but it has also reduced water loss.

The benefit is two-fold in its business and community impacts. That is the type of value digital delivers.

The Digital Imperative

As the water sector’s transformation continues to gain pace, digital technologies are now being recognized as imperative. Utilities understand the need to modernize and recognize the value of digital. The key question is not why, but how. What is lacking — particularly for many smaller utilities — is knowing where to start or how to scale.

From my experience working with utilities around the world, and as a digital water expert passionate about driving innovation across the industry, I know that “Big Bang” transformations are rare. The incremental but intentional improvements over time are the ones that have paid the greatest dividends. Successful transformation means finding a sustainable pace of change, putting quality data to work, and building thoughtfully on each success.

That experience also tallies with the other water, wastewater, and stormwater utility leaders and experts consulted for Xylem’s paper, Ripple Effect: A Movement Towards Digital Transformation.1 While the group consulted for the paper spans the scope of utility sizes, locations, and resources, one common thread ran through each of their experiences: a thoughtful, systematic approach to “going digital” can and will lead to powerful outcomes.

Every small win is another piece of the jigsaw, and every move brings the industry one step closer to achieving one common goal — building a resilient, sustainable, and equitable water future for all.



About The Author

Michele Samuels, PE, is the strategic accounts manager at Xylem. Michele is a certified Asset Management Professional (IAM) and holds master’s degrees in both engineering and business from the University of Toronto and Warwick Business School, respectively.