How the Internet of Things can transform your water network
By Luc Turner, Industry Manager – Water & Wastewater, Endress+Hauser
Monday, 05 October, 2020
The water industry has undergone enormous changes in the past 20 years. To ensure plants and networks kept running safely, it was the norm to have a large team of operations staff to carry out such time-consuming tasks as manual measurements. Today we are largely able to operate water treatment plants remotely, which is a boon to productivity, accuracy and efficiency.
Increasing population, industrialisation and climate change intensifies water scarcity. Communities across the world have an urgent requirement for safe, reliable and affordable water and wastewater (W/WW) services. W/WW is a non-cyclical industry: authorities will continue to invest in upgrades as long as populations increase and infrastructure ages. It is therefore critical to leverage the right solutions at the right time to ensure these investments are effective in improving operations and justifying capital expenditure.
Everyone in the W/WW industry should be focusing on the Internet of Things (IoT) and how it can improve their operations. The IoT connects digital objects such as sensors and flow meters to the internet, turning them into ‘smart’ assets that can communicate with users and application systems. This allows for more efficient process control and optimised network management. General water monitoring operations that were previously manual and inefficient can now be automated, continuously reporting on their own status in real time.
Planning and implementing large-scale IoT solutions isn’t simple, and there are many aspects to consider. A typical IoT solution is made up of several layers, each with their own challenges. The most well-accepted visualisation of an IoT water solution was originally developed by the Smart Water Area Networks (SWAN) forum. It consists of five distinct layers including:
- Physical layer (pipes, pumps, valves, etc)
- Sensor layer (process instrumentation)
- Communication layer (storage and transmission of data)
- Data management and display (visualisation tools)
- Data fusion and analytics (predictive algorithms and artificial intelligence)
Let’s first consider the sensing layer — the primary tools required to control a plant or distribution network. Though often overlooked, without accurate and reliable data from process sensors, implementation of an IoT-based system is pointless. However, large-scale IoT systems may require the installation of thousands of sensors, and so engineers will naturally be sensitive to the costs of both the sensing element and overall installation. The power consumption of sensing elements is also important, given that most large-scale IoT solutions will be battery powered. Finding a reliable, accurate and fit-for-purpose process sensor is fundamental to the success of an IoT-based system.
The communication layer is responsible for the secure transmission of data to upper layers where data management and analytics is performed. This is no simple task in Australia, where there can be hundreds of kilometres between network locations. It is important to consider the various transmission technologies available and decide which would be most appropriate. This may include low-power wide-area networks (LPWANs), cellular (3G/4G/5G), Wi-Fi, satellite or a mixture of technologies. Major network providers in Australia offer a range of technologies to suit many use cases.
Once any challenges with sensing and communications are resolved, data is transported into the visualisation and analytics layers. Data visualisation can consist of a SCADA system or a cloud-based dashboard tool. It should be remembered that IoT applications can generate huge amounts of data, so it’s important to be aware of the volume of data that will be transmitted on an hourly, daily or monthly basis and adjust the system to meet specific requirements.
Data analytics refers to the ability to crunch data, define patterns and perform forecasts. It can be as simple as displaying information in an easy-to-read format, or as advanced as using machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI) to make predictions. These tools make it easier for the management team and key stakeholders to understand the information and prove the ROI.
There are multiple ways that the IoT can help the W/WW industry improve operational efficiency and make smarter decisions for future investment. The following are five of the most common use cases and their benefits.
Sewer level detection
Attending emergency callouts for sewer overflows can be both expensive to the local authority responsible and unpleasant for nearby inhabitants. Without a reliable method of sewer level measurement, these blockages are often unpredictable. By deploying a network of level sensors and integrating data into a cloud-based system, we can begin to form AI-based predictions and provide early warnings of sewer-blockage events. This enables action to be taken to avoid expensive overflows and achieve operational efficiency.
Industrial effluent monitoring
Controlled release of waste effluent from industrial users directly into a local sewage system is very common. However, few of these sites are equipped with water-quality sensors to provide an early indication of pollution. Typically, composite liquid samples are taken over a weekly period (or even longer) and measured in the laboratory. With this method, it’s easy to miss significant pollution events which may adversely influence a downstream wastewater treatment plant. Flow metering can also be incorporated into this system to provide load details and information for billing requirements. Water quality and flow sensors provide real-time (or near real-time) data to a centrally managed system, allowing operators to locate the source and predict the spread of pollution events from industrial sites.
Potable water storage and transmission
Drinking water is an expensive resource, particularly in areas suffering extreme drought. The devastating bushfires of 2019 and 2020 serve as a reminder to the Australian population that our most precious resource must be protected. Potable water leakage detection has thus become a significant use case for the IoT. Smart sensors can be deployed across the network to feed data into a system providing real-time warnings of leakage events, ensuring they are rapidly corrected. Complex acoustic sensors have proved to be extremely accurate, though relatively simple solutions such as pressure monitoring or flow metering have also been very successful.
While early warning of a leakage event is obviously beneficial, extensive pressure or flow monitoring of the water distribution network can also identify areas requiring rehabilitation before a burst occurs. With predictive maintenance, unplanned network shutdowns can be avoided leading to significant cost savings.
Irrigated agriculture in the Murray Darling River Basin in Australia accounts for 60% of Australia’s entire water consumption and is worth an estimated $2 billion a year. Developing a standard for metering groundwater abstracted from this basin has been a key issue in recent years. Not only do we need to accurately monitor flow, dam levels and bore levels, we require a reliable method to remotely transmit data to a centrally managed system. In Australia, the vast distances that data needs to travel is a major challenge to overcome. However, successfully providing access to this data will minimise undue costs to water users and unregulated removal of water. Some instruments are even smart enough to allow remote verifications, further increasing the reliability of measured values.
Water quality monitoring
Water quality monitoring generally consists of several key parameters (pH, turbidity, free chlorine, etc) to ensure that drinking water is safe or treated wastewater meets environmental guidelines. These parameters are either measured online by process instrumentation or by manual grab sampling, which may examine a composite sample over a weekly period. Most modern treatment plants will have automated online monitoring systems at the outlet of their treatment plant, though the distribution network may be largely untouched. With ad hoc or manual-based measurement, it’s easy to miss a pollution event which may cause environmental damage or population health effects.
Online monitoring in the distribution network ensures that water quality is permanently measured. Real-time warning of pollution events is possible to ensure that they are quickly resolved and downstream operations are not adversely affected. Predictive algorithms can use water quality trends to provide early warnings of pollution and to inform authorities of the potential spread. Furthermore, we can use online monitoring parameters as an input for network asset condition assessment — for example, pH and conductivity in wastewater pump stations. This can allow for predictive maintenance and further improvement to network operations.
The IoT is the future – now
IoT technology solutions can provide enormous benefits that were not previously possible. The volume of information that can now be transmitted is truly staggering, as are the advanced data visualisation solutions that decipher this information and turn it into valuable outcomes for a wide variety of stakeholders.
For a successful IoT solution to be deployed, every level of the system architecture must be clearly understood. Once that’s accomplished, multiple use cases can be explored, all of which can provide quantitative benefits. In these testing times of decreasing water security, IoT technology has been proven to boost operational efficiency and provide smart investment decisions. As utilities continue to make quantum leaps in their use of IoT technology, now is not the time to be left behind.
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