News Feature | August 5, 2013

Wireless Technology At Water Utilities: A ‘Brain Drain' Antidote?

Sara Jerome

By Sara Jerome,

Mobile technology may help plug the “brain drain” at water utilities.

The water sector is bracing for a loss of knowledge and expertise. They “will leave behind not only empty spaces but gaps in critical technical and facility-specific or ‘institutional’ knowledge,” Utility Executive reported.

Wireless technology may help bridge the gap by making plants run more efficiently and establishing repeatable practices. In a study published by the American Water Works Association (AWWA), water utilities said "knowledge capture for succession planning" is a main reason for deploying wireless technology.

Mobile tech makes it “easier to manage mobile assets and give decision-makers greater visibility into field activities,” according to the journal Water Utility Management International. Mobile workers who use wireless technology are better prepared to access key data, communicate between themselves and the office, and efficiently complete work and documentation, the journal reported. They also require fewer trips back to the office. A white paper by Motion Computing found that mobile technology used in the plant also improves the consumer experience.

Despite the benefits of wireless, water utilities have not been quick to deploy this technology. Less than half of respondents to the AWWA study are using wireless tools. “Many utilities haven’t formally evaluated the technology’s value for their business,” the report said. Concerns include security and the need for upgrades as technology advances.

The retirement of the baby boomers will pose challenges to many industries, but water utilities face unique problems.

"A lot of the work that goes on at utilities is based on a little tweak here and a little tweak there to get the plant to operate at its absolute optimum,” Steven Agor, senior project manager at the Irvine, CA, office of Tetra Tech, told Utility Executive magazine. “If you're not sure what those tweaks are — especially seasonally or when upsets occur — when a new person comes in, they've got to learn that all over again, because a lot of it is not well-documented.”

Utilities are not dealing with “brain drain” as quickly as they should, according to Mary Dailey-Fischer, a consultant at EMA Inc. “There's more talk than doing," she told Utility Executive. Utility managers reason that “well, it's not for 5 to 10 years, so it's not urgent.”