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Effective Water Distribution Systems are Vital – How are We Doing with Innovation?

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Tom Walski, Ph.D, P.E, Senior Product Manager, Water



The week we have a guest blogger in Dr. Neil Grigg from Colorado State Univ., an internationally known water resources engineer, writing about innovation in water systems. For a preliminary conversation, you can contact him at Neil.Grigg@colostate.edu.

It isn’t necessary to explain that customers expect safe, reliable, and affordable water, that distribution systems are a critical link in providing service, that buried and aging infrastructure is a challenge to manage, and that many utilities in the US struggle due to lack of enough funding. These issues are reviewed continually by the water industry to assess what should be done.

Is the answer to innovate in management practices and bypass the challenges?  Sort of like forgetting about upgrading land line phones and just using cell phones? And what is innovation anyway? It depends on the context, but it generally means new ideas, methods, and products—and all of these apply to distribution system management.

Of course, to innovate is one thing, but to implement the innovation is another.

Innovative ideas, methods, and products for distribution systems are needed to graft new controls on to old distribution systems to make them work better and last longer. They use a lot of information technologies embodied in sensors, controls, communications, and data management. While there are plenty of these new ideas, methods, and products, it’s not clear how many get to the stage of effective implementation.

A high-level vision for such new technologies emerged from AWWA’s Water 2050 initiative (https://www.awwa.org/Resources-Tools/Water-2050/Water-2050-Reports) with ideas like accelerate and incentivize investment in innovation, cultivate a technology-savvy water workforce, transform water services with next-generation technology, use digital solutions like AI and machine learning, apply real-time monitoring and predictive analytics, and provide consumers with real-time information to make informed decisions.  

These are lofty concepts, but if you were working at Y2K on January 1, 2000, when we wondered if all the lights would go off, you realize how fast time flies and that this is already 2023 and 2050 isn’t that far away. So, what is the trajectory of innovation and what can we expect in the next couple of decades?

Look Ahead to How Innovation Happens in the Drinking Water Industry

One way to look ahead is to think about how innovation happens in the drinking water industry. It is not like developing a new product in a corporate or government R&D laboratory. It is more like a shared effort involving utility innovators networked through collaborative organizations like AWWA, vendors developing new products, contractors and consultants promoting innovation, and organizations like the Water Research Foundation (WRF) providing research projects to support the water industry. Innovators are working in utilities, firms, and labs have been at work a long time, but networks and visibility are needed if a lot of implementation is to happen.

Think back to before the Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA). Most published research was in practical papers about main breaks and hydraulic capacity. Little was published about distribution system water quality or network hydraulics, although innovators in individual places were hard at work developing improvements.

After the SDWA, more research on water quality, main breaks and network models emerged, and studies of lead release began in the 1980s. By 2000, WRF and USEPA had distribution system research programs. A significant development of that time was development of EPAnet, which has become the engine for several commercial distribution system models, at least to get software packages off the ground prior to many further improvements made by companies that market products like Bentley’s Openflows WaterGEMS.

Management innovations were also promoted through team efforts like the 2008 coalition that developed “Effective Utility Management” practices and AWWA’s development of the G200 distribution system management standard and addition of distribution systems to the Partnership for Safe Water program.  

So, the collective efforts to innovate in management of distribution systems have ramped up, both in the US and other countries. Among distribution system researchers, the world is truly flat now, as innovations can be shared quickly across boundaries.

Identifying and Observing Important Innovations

To get a snapshot of progress in distribution system management, I set out to identify the most important innovations of recent years and look into how well they are being implemented. I drew on my experiences going back to the 1960s in benefiting from interaction with utility people and being privileged to witness change. One of the best experiences has been working with AWWA and WRF

One thing I have learned is that what might seem like a good idea may get shot down by practical realities, especially those stemming from workforce and financial constraints. So, the question is, of the main innovations, which ones are working the best?

Looking at innovations in different ways, I ended up with the list shown here.

•    Asset management (including condition assessment)
•    Prioritization methods for capital renewal using remaining life predictions
•    Distribution system optimization
•    Water auditing with IWA/AWWA method
•    Hydraulic and water quality models, including digital twin concepts
•    AWWA Standard for distribution systems management G200    
•    Pipe break simulation models
•    Intelligent (smart or digital) water systems

I’ve been surveying utilities and collecting information from trade publications, research reports, and anecdotal accounts.  Each of the innovations involves different interpretations and nuances, and it is inevitable that the gap between well-funded and other utilities will figure into the results.  

I have been learning that some innovations are understood in different ways. Examples are asset management, prioritization methods for capital planning, distribution system optimization, and intelligent systems.  Other innovations are more specific, especially hydraulic modeling and water auditing.  Surprisingly, I’ve learned that quite a few utilities are not aware of AWWA’s G200 standard for managing distribution systems.

I was also surprised that so few utilities use simulation or other quantitative methods for pipe break modeling to determine remining life for asset management. My surprise is probably due to my own naivete in thinking that everyone reads articles, goes to AWWA meetings, and wants to use research products.

Another surprise has been the low participation in AWWA’s Partnership for Safe Water for distribution systems and use of its distribution system optimization platform. On the participation, I think that when a commitment like that is not required by some authority, it’s unlikely to go very far in most cases.

On the general use of distribution system optimization, there are two apparent barriers. One is that it takes a lot of work and data management, and the other is confusion about the word “optimization.” Being involved in some aspects of mathematical optimization myself, I know the word means to maximize achievement of some goal. However, after looking into it, I found that that the folks developing the distribution system concept were using the word in the context of process optimization, used in water treatment to mean achieving the best result in a process without violating constraints.

Still there’s confusion. Treatment plant optimization is understood by specialists, but distribution system optimization involves a broader spectrum of participants. Like with G200, utilities might say, “we don’t use that, but we strive to do a good job across the board.”

Obviously, there’s a lot to discuss among these general observations.  One idea is that, not surprisingly, a major issue is equipping poorly-funded utilities so they can embrace the most promising innovations and even existing methods. Beyond that, a few ideas about the road ahead are these:

•    Keep up the training on the data-based practices embodied in asset management and capital improvement planning. 
•    Keep developing the concept of distribution system optimization and sustain efforts to enlist utilities in AWWA’s Partnership for Safe Water distribution system program.
•    Build on lessons learned from the impressive and successful implementation of the IWA/AWWA water auditing initiative and use the same approaches to promote other innovations.
•    Find ways to promote and extend use of the digital twin concept by building capacity in utilities to use hydraulic and water quality models to diagnose problems and improve operations. 
•    Develop strategies for utilities to use AWWA’s standard G200 for self-assessment and to improve O&M.
•    Ramp up the training and information transfer on use of digital technologies to extend the use of “intelligent” and “smart” systems to improve operations, empower customers, and promote equity.

What Happens Moving Forward?

It’s easy to develop lists like this, but the elephant in the room is usually the question “who is supposed to do those things and why should they?” Most of us think the drinking water industry has been OK in general, but maybe we are complacent. Most utilities are monopolies that are governed politically at local levels. They don’t face market competition and customers have no alternatives for water service. So, for innovations we depend on what we can do. This is illustrated by a response to my question to one utility manager: how do you determine when to renew your water mains? His answer was “we just fix them when they break.” That’s actually not a bad strategy in some cases, but there are always routes to continuous improvement.

In many cases, utilities lack incentives to improve beyond basic compliance and trying to hold rates down, although they usually get political pressure not to raise them. We might benefit from an objective comparison with how well our peers are doing in other countries. Wholesale privatization is not going to happen, like it did in the UK, but other paths to promoting innovations may be available. 

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