The Utility of the Future Series

In this six-part series, Travis Smith, Joseph Dryer and Zachary Barkjohn look at the social, environmental, and economic pressures facing utilities. They will share their vision of the future using current technology, integration, and methods to break from a vicious financial cycle to become a sustainable utility.

In part five, the authors look at the factors that can help a utility break out of a vicious financial cycle by making prudent changes to ease rate pressures and budget constraints.

Control of a process is nearly impossible without measurement. Key improvements can be revealed just by gathering data. Simple data such as the water pressure at a location can point to a pressure reducing valve (PRV) failure or a closed valve. To avoid additional consequences, be mindful of the accuracy of the measurement and the latency of the data.

Monitoring helps solve the issue of latency and makes the data consumable, particularly with the use of alarms based upon operating thresholds. For instance, an operator may not need to watch the pressure on a main line, if there are high- and low-pressure alarms that inform the operator an abnormal condition has occurred. A downside of the monitoring could be ensuring the settings can be easily changed to avoid noise, or trigger points beyond the risk thresholds, as well as creating the awareness mechanism to pass information to operations, engineering, or maintenance staff in time for meaningful results. 

Analytics help the data usability and tie in trends related to other events, such as weather. For example, if a sewer overflow happens in the same location anytime it rains greater than 3-inches in 24 hours, this indicates some inflow into the system. Analytics also help with modeling, long-term planning and potential operational adjustments based upon seasons. The key difficulties to avoid in this area are data integrity, particularly time stamping, user interface, usability compromised by complexity, and inclusion of all contributing variables.  

Improvements can come from simple measurement, monitoring, trending or analytics. The key is to make the improvements as early as possible with the simplest amount of sophistication to capture the most return on investment. Often work orders and business practices need to be integrated to coincide with the improvements. For example, using monitoring equipment to identify a leak’s magnitude and location would also suggest the repair be evaluated, as potentially a small leak could be deferred to the next year when the service line is scheduled to be expanded. Often urgency, costs, and asset planning can be snags to the best return on investment.  

Once an improvement is made, a new paradigm exists and the utility needs to ensure the beneficial change is maintained. For example, after studying the pressure in a zone, the utility was able to reduce the pressure to save on water loss, but this reduction needs to be controlled and monitored with new alarm settings and operations practices. Sometimes these changes can be automated and controlled effectively, as long as all use cases are considered to avoid new issues arising from the improvements.

This approach can help a utility break out of a vicious cycle of maintenance deferments to additional consequences, poor public perception, rate pressures and more budget cuts. By making prudent changes the utility can enter a virtuous cycle (see figure 11) whereby changes in maintenance and operations avoid risk, and customer service improves, maintenance budgets improve, staffing development increases, and public perception is enhanced easing rate pressure and budget constraints.  

Figure 11 – Vicious and Virtuous Financial Cycles