It is clear that water supplies throughout the United States are not a source of real risk for coronavirus transmission. Advanced water treatment processes regularly include chlorination and other steps designed to prevent microbial and viral contamination. While there may be very modest risks for transmission in wastewater, the real threat to the water industry from the global pandemic is the impact on the people who are responsible for maintaining our water systems. Water utility management is labor intensive and many suppliers operate outdated systems that require manual intervention at numerous stages of the procurement, treatment, delivery, and meter-to-cash processes.
George Hawkins and Andy Kricun recently published an article recommending actions that water suppliers should consider to ensure reliable operations and worker safety. One of the suggestions they make is to deploy remote sensing devices to allow for monitoring critical systems while maintaining safe social distancing. This is an excellent suggestion and there are many other technologies available that can improve system automation, remote monitoring and control, and more reliable revenue collection in the event of ongoing or future social isolation requirements.
The goal for water suppliers should be maintaining service quality and reliability while protecting utility staff and customers from unnecessary social interactions which can put people at risk of infection. We are a new era of social interaction and many are finding that much can be accomplished using remote internet tools and video conferencing. While the widespread use of these technologies is sustaining many businesses during the current crisis, much more can be done.
One of the primary tasks for any utility is to capture data on resource use to allow for production optimization, and just as importantly, to generate customer bills. Data acquisition is still accomplished through manual means by many water suppliers which means sending field staff to a customer location to record a meter register reading.
The notion of Advanced Metering Infrastructure is not new to most utility managers, and as many as 30% of water suppliers across the United States have implemented some form of meter data automation. However there are many others that have not been able to justify investing in AMI, given the historical assumptions that form the typical business case.
“Given the emerging risks to public health from close social interactions, a new variable in the business case calculation for AMI should now be included: The avoided cost of illness or, possibly, death.”
Those assumptions primarily include the reduced cost of staff time to read meters, and more accurate consumption data from new meters, reducing apparent losses. Given the emerging risks to public health from close social interactions, a new variable in the business case calculation for AMI should now be included: The avoided cost of illness or, possibly, death. This may be considered grim and insensitive to try to quantify the economic value of a human life, but the risks are real and the cost of not acting should be taken into account when calculating the ROI for any substantial investment.
Remote valve control
Another activity that most utilities perform on a regular basis that puts their staff at possible risk is water disconnects. There are a number of reasons that utilities will manually shut-off water service including main breaks, customer moves, and payment delinquencies. Not only is it time consuming and expensive to spend field staff time driving to close water valves, it can also be dangerous. Particularly in situations where water services are being disconnected for late payment, angry customers have been known to physically assault utility staff in an attempt to avoid the service disruption.
“While many utilities around the country have admirably suspended water shut-offs during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, this does not eliminate the need for manual service disconnections.”
By implementing remote valve control over existing cellular networks, utility managers can remotely turn water services on and off for a variety of reasons without putting staff at risk. While many utilities around the country have admirably suspended water shut-offs during the time of the COVID-19 pandemic, this does not eliminate the need for manual service disconnections. Cases of system maintenance, property protection, and water theft remain and technologies that can support improved health and safety should be carefully considered.
Operations management and improved efficiency
It’s not just capturing data and controlling services remotely where opportunities to further protect staff safety come into play. Having access to advanced software platforms can give remote workers more insight into system operations. Modern meter data management systems which can analyze consumption data in near real-time. These systems also generate alerts and reports to help operations teams proactively detect leaks and other customer related issues. This allows for better prioritization and planning of limited resources, all within the safety and comfort of the utility office, or increasingly, the home office of a remote worker.
On the customer service side, these same benefits can be delivered to end-use customers via web and mobile, allowing them to access detailed water data, see and pay bills, and self-serve around common questions. This also allows customers to remotely engage with utility customer service representatives without the need to put themselves or utility staff at risk from face-to-face interactions at an office.
Many utility companies still maintain a ‘point-of-sale’ presence for older customers who are less inclined to use remote technologies. For better or worse, the sea change of social distancing we are experiencing is remaking the way that companies and customers think about interacting. This will inevitably lead to an increase in the adoption of remote technologies and older people are going to be forced to adapt like the rest of us.
There is no silver bullet to the challenges we face as a global community when it comes to the current pandemic. The obvious social distancing and personal hygiene practices should have a positive impact on the rate of disease spread, but it will be a long time before our lives return to anything that might be considered ‘normal’. In the meantime, utility managers should be seriously considered process changes and long-term technology investments that can be made to help protect the health and safety of workers and customers. This will lead to better preparation for when the next, unknown but inevitable, crisis occurs.