Digitalization In The Water And Wastewater Industry — A Glass Half Full?
February 6, 2023
By James Chalmers
The global water and wastewater industry is facing unprecedented operational challenges brought about by climate change, water scarcity, aging infrastructure, rapid urbanization, and rising energy costs. While each challenge presents its own complexities, operators are now armed with data-driven digital solutions to drive industry improvements and boost decision-making.
The rapid development of more sophisticated real-time sensing and monitoring technologies is driving the uptake of smart technology that can aid the efficiency and optimization of several processes. These include more automated controls, improved monitoring of water quality and flow, and better management of water usage through more efficient water metering programs.
By pairing smart monitoring technology with variable speed drives (VSDs), motors and programmable logic controllers (PLCs), water utility operators can optimize preemptive asset management and, in the process, drive a significant shift from reactive to real-time monitoring. However, the level of adoption of data analytics, cloud connectivity, and automation varies between companies and regions.
Many companies in the water and wastewater industry have so far only embraced digital solutions related to specific uses. Yet, digitalization has excellent potential to transform almost every aspect of the industry. Let’s take a closer look at three key elements where it can make a difference.
Consistent drinking water and wastewater quality has been a major challenge for utilities, as the testing process has traditionally been highly labor-intensive and time-consuming. Typically, an employee would physically extract a sample, test it in a laboratory, and feed the results back to the plant operator a few days or even weeks later.
If a quality concern showed up, such as the level of total suspended solids (TSS) being excessively high, it would require a manual adjustment to resolve. It would then need further testing to ensure the desired quality level had been achieved. This cumbersome process is potentially harmful if significant changes are noticed but not dealt with rapidly. Conversely, some changes are so delayed that the process may have righted itself in the interim, with redundant changes then made afterwards.
Today, digital water quality sensors installed inline within the system can gather and exchange reliable, quality data in real-time via the Internet of Things (IoT). A wireless sensor can detect a change as soon as it shows up and alert the plant operator immediately.
An added advantage is that smarter communication between the sensors and chemical control feed can make it possible to adjust the water quality automatically without manual intervention. For instance, if the pH drops, the chemical feed system can counter the imbalance by automatically adjusting to increase the pumped level of alkaline material. Using a digitally connected VSD that automatically regulates the pump motor’s speed and torque will improve the alkaline material’s flow control. It also allows the pump to be operated at its best efficiency point (BEP).
Process Control And Maintenance
Another major industry challenge is to maintain proper control over the performance of water and wastewater applications. For example, uncontrolled pressure in pumps often causes costly leakages — a failure utility companies can hardly afford given today’s water scarcity and energy costs. The wastage is often the result of functional failure triggered by a lack of proper maintenance.
To eliminate the problem, operators can digitally connect the motor and drive systems that control the applications to the cloud. This makes it possible to monitor their condition remotely, which ensures optimal performance and efficiency. Data from the drive, motor, and pump can be analyzed jointly to provide insights into the health and performance of the entire system.
Extensive condition monitoring can also be realized with a condition monitoring system (CMS) using PLCs. The PLC platform automates processes within pumps, drives, sensors and other applications through scalable, flexible and efficient components and connects them to the cloud. Other benefits include easy integration into control systems for maximum availability even under extreme conditions. This supports efficient engineering for water management.
Consequently, the solution allows proactive maintenance before a functional failure occurs. The result is reduced downtime, optimized maintenance costs, elimination of unexpected production stops, and reduced spend on spare parts stock. A digital solution allows experts to analyze data collected from the sensors and use it to inform corrective actions which extend equipment lifetime.
One organization leading by example is CAFC, an Italian municipal water supplier that serves 122 municipalities over a vast territory. ABB supplied CAFC with a digital condition monitoring solution for its equipment. This solution was enabled by smart connectivity to enhance the performance monitoring and maintenance of the utility’s variable speed drives and pump motors.
Before adopting the water and wastewater drives and condition monitoring system, CAFC partnered with ABB on pilot projects to digitize its powertrains. One such project was at the Rivignano sewage treatment plant. The team decided to use an easy-to-install drive connectivity panel for immediate access to cloud services.
The panel can be configured simultaneously with the commissioning of the drive and requires minimal technician time. A pre-installed NB-IoT modem, SIM card, and high-performance antenna automatically connect to the network that provides the best signal.
Today, CAFC performs one-a-year maintenance on all the motors and pumps in the aqueducts, using only an electrician and a mechanic. The water utility expects to perform on-site maintenance with even longer intervals in the future.
Nearly a third of all electric motors in the world are paired with a drive with the primary aim of reducing energy use. Digitally connected motor and drive applications can communicate valuable data about energy usage and efficiency, making it easier for operators to understand how and why energy might be going to waste.
With such data at their fingertips, operators can make better decisions to address causes of energy efficiency issues that may have previously gone undetected. These may include oversized components, low-efficiency motors, variable load processes running at full speed, or poor asset condition.
With this approach, Saneago, the water utility serving the Brazilian state of Goiás, managed to cut its pumping energy bills by around US$700,000 annually. The company installed a wide range of ABB smart drives, motors, sensors, and remote conditioning tools at its four inlet water pumping stations. The 15 high-efficiency low-voltage motors and drives control the speed and torque of the water pumps, helping the utility to reduce energy consumption by 25%.
Taking A Holistic Approach
These examples of a smart water system outline the benefits of such solutions in terms of efficiency, time, cost, and labor. However, digital solutions must be holistic — the water cycle involves treatment, transport, sustainability, usage, and assets — so utilities cannot just focus on one function alone.
Going digital offers the potential to address and manage multiple issues. The smart solutions adopted to address them does so in a way that brings greater efficiency as they function as an interconnected system, evidenced in the energy and transport sectors. Now is the time to realize the same benefits for the world’s water and wastewater industry.
For further information: https://new.abb.com/drives/segments/water-and-wastewater
James Chalmers is a global vice president responsible for the business development of ABB drives product sales in the water and wastewater industry.
Moreover, James is an accomplished sales leader with over 20 years of experience supporting businesses, utilities, consultants, and councils to understand the advantages of incorporating innovative technologies into their infrastructure to achieve more energy-efficient and reliable operations for a sustainable future. James is also known for his strengths in delivering a value-sales approach, developing new business models, and implementing the best tools for process improvements.