The Automation Advantage

Automating valves and pumps is cost-effective.

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New technology doesn’t come cheap. But what if that new tech could help utilities better control and monitor the flow of drinking water through their water delivery systems? What if that technology could help utilities discover potential leaks or isolate those pumps and valves that are starting to gradually fail before they stop working completely?

That kind of technology would save utilities money over time—enough to offer a quick payback on its upfront costs.

That’s the main selling point of automation systems that help utilities remotely control and monitor the operation of the pumps and valves that play such a key role in delivering drinking water. And the selling point is hitting home today, with a growing number of municipal utilities either exploring or already investing in automation technology.

And the companies working in this field say that the demand for automation technology is increasing—and it’s a trend that they say isn’t showing any signs of slowing. Utilities, after all, face the same economic challenges as do all government agencies: They need to reduce their operating costs to boost their bottom lines. Increasingly automating their pumps and valves can help in this effort.

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Just ask Ryan Spooner, automation and instrumentation engineering manager with British Columbia, Canada-based Singer, a Mueller Water Products Company. He is seeing a growing number of utilities embracing automation.

And the biggest push for automation? It’s coming from municipalities that want to gain more control over the pressure and flow throughout their water-distribution systems.

This isn’t surprising. Municipalities can save a significant amount of energy—and therefore money—by better controlling both flow and pressure. And when it comes to adopting new technology or automation systems, municipalities will always be more inspired by the prospect of saving money.

“The two are kind of linked together,” says Spooner. “When you decrease your pressure, you decrease your flow of water too. By having the capability to control your pressure and flows at different times of the day or during peak demand and off-peak hours, you can severely lower the amount of water you use.”

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By reducing the amount of pressure in their systems during different times of the day—perhaps lowering pressure in the evening, for instance, when demand for water is not as high—municipalities can decrease the number of pipe breaks they suffer. This, of course, reduces the amount of water they waste through leaks.

Thanks to automation systems such as the one produced by Singer, water district workers can simply check their instrument panels to instantly uncover the biggest pressure points in their systems. They can then remotely change this pressure from their control panels without having to go into the field.

Water district officials can even set their systems to change the water pressure flowing through it automatically—5, 20, or 30 times a day, depending on what’s best for their systems. This is a far more efficient way to deliver water than setting the pressure throughout a system at one flow at all times.

Spooner points to a customer in Brisbane, Australia, as an example. The utility had an employee who sat at his desk and was able to view six video streams that covered the utility’s entire water distribution network. The worker could control any valve or pump right from this desk.

“That’s pretty interesting. He doesn’t have to go into the field and manually change anything,” comments Spooner. “He can change the pressure and the flows from his desk. He can shut things down if he wants, all from one computer with a big screen.”

Trevor Hill, chief executive officer and chairman of Fathom, says that automation can save utilities significant money when it comes to when their pumps run and don’t run.

What happens too often today, Hill says, is that utilities switch on their pumps when power is at its most expensive and demand is at its highest. What would make more financial sense is to have pumps running during those times when power is at its cheapest.

That’s something automation systems can do, and something that can result in a large amount of savings each year for utilities.

“If you could just lock out the ability of that pump to run at the most expensive time of the day, you could save 40% in costs for that day,” says Hill. “The power is so much more expensive every time you go into that high power beat. By taking control of when your pumps turn on, you can save massive power costs.”

Brendan Watson is also no stranger to the rewards, and potential challenges, that water districts face when automating their delivery systems. As business development manager for the Americas for controls and monitoring with Grundfos Pumps Corporation, automation is what Watson specializes in.

His goal? To make sure that water utility clients control and run their pumps as efficiently as possible.

“It’s about taking away some of the jobs municipalities used to do manually and moving those tasks to automation,” says Watson.

To help in this effort, Grundfos offers a control system that is tailored to meet the specific needs of pump operators in lift stations. The company also offers automated control systems for the booster side of the water delivery process.

What positive impact has Watson seen from these automation systems? One big difference is how much easier it can be for utilities to deal with blockages once they boost the automation in their delivery systems.

Say operators detect a blockage in their water delivery systems. Without automation, these operators would have to physically run their pumps in reverse to unblock the pump, something that takes time and planning. Grundfos’ automation system, though, contains its own anti-blocking feature. The system automatically reverses the pumps when it detects certain levels of energy flow and pump speeds. If these numbers fall outside a certain range, set by the utility customer, it sends a signal. The pump is then reversed automatically, clearing out the blockage quickly, and without requiring an operator to physically run or monitor the process.

“There is a Murphy’s Law when it comes to pump stations: If there is an issue with a pump, it will happen at two in the morning on a Saturday when it’s pouring down rain,” says Watson. “The goal of automation, then, is to take as many steps that used to be manually handled and automate them so that utility employees don’t have to deal with issues at two in the morning.”

That’s just one benefit of automation. Watson also points to the flow calculations Grundfos’ automation system runs. The system runs a drawdown test with every single pump cycle. This way, utility officials can see how the performance of their pumps has degraded over time.

If operators notice, through these automated drawdown tests, that their pumps are moving fewer gallons of water a minute, they can take the steps necessary to rejuvenate them before more expensive repairs are needed.

“The big thing I try to sell to municipalities on is that automation can show you problems before they occur,” says Watson. “Say you’re doing a drawdown test with every pump cycle. If you see the outflow starting to drop—a pump might have started at 500 gallons a minute but a year later is now doing 300 gallons a minute—you can take steps to rectify the issue. It might be a mechanical issue. It might be a hydraulic issue. But you know there is an issue with energy consumption. That pump is much less efficient than it was a year ago. It is now costing the utility more money to move water with it.”

Automation systems can bring a large amount of savings, too, when it comes to variable frequency drives, or VFDs, an increasingly popular technology in water pumps.

Utilities are embracing VFDs, which allow them to change the speeds at which their pump engines operate, as a way to save money. But Watson points out that VFDs will only result in savings if they actually do change the speed of pump engines at the appropriate times, when municipalities need less pressure and flow through their systems.

But if they don’t? Then VFDs won’t have the economic impact for which utilities hope.

“If you don’t change the speed of the engines at the right times, you’ll never consume less energy,” says Watson.

Grundfos’ automation systems automatically adjust the speed of VFDs to find the optimum speed at which to run them at all times. That saves a considerable amount of energy and costs, over time.

“Customers could do that manually, but it would take them weeks to figure out that optimum speed,” says Watson. “They’d have to be out there measuring power, writing down and recording data. Even then, if they’re lucky they might save some energy. Our system runs that optimization test every eight hours. What are the conditions of the pump station now? That’s what our test determines. It determines automatically when it makes more sense to run a pump at a slower or faster speed.”

Watson says that too many utilities operate in what industry pros often call a “run to fail” mode when it comes to their pumps and valves. Say a utility has two pumps in a given lift station. The utility will only spend money on maintenance and repairs when one of those pumps actually fails.

The better approach is to practice preventative maintenance, a process that can keep pumps from failing at all. This approach will save money in the long run. It is more expensive to repair a failed pump than it is to practice the maintenance that keeps the pump operational.

Automated systems that monitor pump performance on a constant basis can help with this, Watson says.

“Your pump is slowly failing over time. It’s not at 100% one day and then stopped the very next. The deterioration process happens over time,” says Watson. “With automated systems, customers can be proactive. They can monitor the deterioration over time. They can see what is happening with the pump. Not only does attacking the problem before a pump fails save in repair costs, it also saves in energy costs. Utilities aren’t operating as long with a pump that is moving water inefficiently.”

Spooner says that he expects a bright future for automation technology. Today, many of the larger utilities across the globe have either already invested in or are exploring this technology as a way to boost their efficiencies and save money. But it won’t be too long, Spooner says, before a larger number of smaller utilities do the same.

The reason? There are simply too many benefits from automation for utilities to ignore, even if they do worry about the upfront cost of investing in this new technology.

By automating the control of their systems’ pumps and valves, utilities can move drinking water through their systems as efficiently as possible. This means sending the right amount of pressure through their pipes at all times. Boosting pressure, and forcing pumps to pump at a more powerful rate, takes energy. If a system doesn’t need this pressure at certain times of the day, it doesn’t make sense to force it. That just costs an unnecessary amount of energy and money.

But there are other potential cost savings, too. By automating their valves and pumps, water utilities can reduce the amount of water they lose through leaks. Automation systems can tell users when they are pumping more water into a section of the system than is coming out. This can help utilities identify potential leaks, and help reduce their non-revenue water.

“Utilities largely don’t know how much water they are losing,” says Spooner. “Once they see that the amount of flow going out isn’t equal to that going in, they might realize just how many pipe leaks they have. Once they gain a bit more knowledge into their non-revenue water situation, they might take steps to reduce those leaks. And that can save them a significant amount of money over time.”

Many countries have already embraced automation. Spooner says that utilities in the US are actually behind those in other countries when it comes to investing in this technology. Scarcity of water is a big reason.

As Spooner says, water is scarce in many countries. He points to India, where water is so scarce that it is often not available to the public 24 hours a day. In countries where water scarcity is a bigger issue, utilities have to take steps to more carefully monitor their public water supply and to deliver it with as much efficiency as possible.

Because of this, these countries are more likely to invest in technology that helps them automate the operation of their systems’ pumps and valves, Spooner says.

Things are different throughout much of North America. Water isn’t as scarce, so utilities are less likely to spend significant money on technology to help automate their water systems.

“It’s not that in North America there is no limit to our water, but we are used to having a lot of water available to us,” says Spooner. “In past years with the drought in California, with the snowpack getting smaller, people are finally starting to take notice that our water supply might not be as abundant as they once thought. Utilities are investing more money in saving water and in cutting back on its usage.”

Spooner has worked with Singer for a little more than five years. During this time, he’s seen the number of utilities investing in and investigating pump and valve automation grow steadily. He says that the number of utilities moving into automation has increased every year since he began working with the company.

Most utilities, though, proceed slowly when it comes to automation. They take small steps first, such as installing instrumentation that allows them to better monitor water as it flows through their systems.

This first step often leads to a gradual investment in more automation technology.

“The smaller ones will usually start with instrumentation as a way of dipping their toes in the water,” says Spooner. “They might install a few pressure transmitters. Then they start thinking about how they can better control the equipment in their system. That is when they begin to move over onto the automation side of things.”

Spooner says that during the last four to five years, the number of water utilities he’s seen invest in automation technology has grown by about 100%.

Many of these utilities hope to reduce their yearly expenses by reducing the amount of energy they consume to deliver water. But energy savings aren’t the only benefit that water utilities get by automating their pumps and valves. Spooner says that they can also greatly reduce the amount of money they spend on maintaining and repairing their infrastructure.

When utilities automatically ramp down their pressure, when they regularly slow down pumps or shut certain pumps off during off-peak times, they are putting less pressure on their systems. By not over-pressurizing their systems, utilities reduce the strain on their pipes and pumps.

“If at night you are applying the same amount of pressure that you are during periods of more demand, you are needlessly wearing down your pipes,” says Spooner. “They undergo more stress. You’ll see more burst pipes and you’ll have to spend more money to repair those pipes. By reducing pressures, you are reducing the pressure on the overall system. You can then extend the lifespan of this system. That is a big cost savings that people tend to forget. It’s not just energy savings. By reducing the fatigue of the system, utilities can realize huge savings.”

With all the benefits that come with automation, why aren’t even more utilities investing in these systems? Spooner says that cost remains a big hurdle. Some utilities just don’t have the room in their budgets to cover the upfront costs of automating their pumps and valves.

These utilities recognize that automation will save them money over the long run. But that doesn’t always make it easier to come up with the funds needed to cover the installation and training that comes with automation.

Then there is an intimidation factor. Utility personnel might worry about the training that comes with automating pumps and valves. The learning curve still scares some utilities away from investing in these systems.

“People are a little scared to hand the power over their system to an electrical device,” says Spooner. “Some don’t know how to use it. We have implemented training programs to get people to understand that the systems are not complicated to run. They do grow more accepting the more they learn about automation. But even then, cost remains a big factor for many utilities. Especially smaller utilities don’t often look at it as being useful to spend all this money to save a small amount of money each year. In bigger cities, that isn’t the case as often.”

The green movement has helped sell automation, too, especially now that utilities are focusing on generating real drops in energy consumption.

There was a time when utilities considered going green as taking steps such as adding motion-detector lights in their offices. There’s nothing wrong with this technology, of course. But as Watson says, the savings from such a move are far lower than the savings utilities could realize through maximizing the efficiency of their pumps and valves through automation.

“You have these motion-detector switches that are powering a few hundred watts of light bulbs,” says Watson. “What about your pump station that is consuming 40 or 50 times more energy a day? Today, municipalities are realizing this. They are more proactive in boosting their efficiency. It’s about real money today.”

But selling automation still comes down to one important factor: Manufacturers must show utility operators just how these systems will both save them money and reduce their workload.

Watson tells the story of a customer in Kentucky. When Watson visited the utility, he saw the sewer operator building a wooden gazebo that would one day serve as a tiny water-treatment shack. Watson realized quickly that the operator was a jack-of-all-trades here—the person who not only supervises lift stations but also builds the wooden shacks to protect water-delivery equipment.

“I was able to convince him that our cloud-based automation system would make his life easier,” says Watson. “He told me that if he was at his deer stand on a Saturday, he wanted to be able to see exactly what was going on in his lift station from his phone. It was about getting our tech down to a level that he cares about. If there is a problem, he will know about it. He didn’t have to put up any antennae or install a server. For him, it was just a matter of looking at his phone.”

Hill says that smaller utilities have long struggled to embrace all forms of new technology, not just automation. That’s because new tech can be expensive, and the utility business is a segmented one, populated by thousands of small utilities that don’t always have the resources to invest in automation.

“They often lack the capital or the IT departments to take advantage of some of the efficiencies that they could enjoy with new technology,” says Hill.

There is some good news here. Many companies in this space, including, of course, Fathom, are offering their technology on cloud platforms. This is a low-barrier way for tech companies to deliver their software and products to even smaller utilities.

And these systems tend to be not only less costly but also easier to operate. This makes cloud-based applications perfect for smaller utilities that are doing more with a lower number of employees.

“There is some trepidation at smaller utilities about new technology,” says Hill. “The people who run these utilities have several jobs. They are doing four or five things at once at all times. To take on tech that appears risky or complicated can be frustrating for them, and daunting. The tech has to be easy to use and understand.”

At the same time, it must be clear how automation technology will save these users money over time. If manufacturers can’t show clear examples of how this will happen, they shouldn’t expect to sell a lot of their products.

“We always lead with the economics,” says Hill. “That’s what matters the most. For us, it’s a simple message: Your revenues will go up, your costs will go down. The economics not only pay for the deployment of the capital, but the technology saves cities money. It’s all about leading with the economics.” WE_bug_web

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