By Sean McCree, Product Management Manager, ABB Motion

Traditional water and wastewater utility systems weren’t built for the dramatically changing stresses of climate change and rapid urbanisation. Therefore, the risk that ageing infrastructure brings – both in terms of potential failure and poor environmental compliance – is a key concern for water utilities around the world.

There is increasing pressure on utility companies to lower their total cost of ownership and high leakage rates. The rapid development of real-time sensing and monitoring technologies for improving early leakage and water quality anomaly detection are an effective way to address these challenges. By combining smart monitoring technology with drives and motors, water utility operators can secure pre-emptive asset management optimisation and, in the process, drive a significant shift from reactive to real-time monitoring.

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Condition-based monitoring

Nearly a third of all electric motors in the world are driven by variable speed drives (VSDs), mainly to reduce energy use. However, there are other reasons for employing drives in water and wastewater applications, including process control (keeping constant water pressure, thus avoiding leakage caused by high pressure), avoiding water hammer, or optimised well exploitation. Drives can perform pump cleaning in wastewater applications and control several pumps in a cascade system in water pumping applications to optimise pump operations and save energy.

Condition-based monitoring services can work alongside all these water automation products to gain access to real-time data via the cloud from remotely located water assets. At the heart of this approach is a new generation of wireless smart sensors – a low-cost, easy-to-install digital solution.

Smart sensors have revolutionised the maintenance logistics of motors by enabling operators to use remote monitoring for early detection of incipient problems. Now, maintenance actions can be cost-effectively planned before functional failure. The result is reduced downtime, eliminating unexpected production stops, optimised maintenance and reduced spare parts stock.

With built-in intelligence for live, adaptive behavior, the technology assists in managing the effects of extreme weather conditions such as excess rainfall that poses problems from water quality to environmental compliance. Furthermore, the digital solution allows experts to analyse data collected from the sensors and turn it into corrective and confident actions to extend equipment lifetime. It’s possible to analyse and decipher the best solution for improving the operation of water and wastewater assets, from a single pump station to an entire water or wastewater treatment facility.

Sensors can also turn traditional pumps into smart, wirelessly connected devices. This approach measures vibration and temperature from the surface of the pump and uses it to develop meaningful insight into the pump’s condition and performance. This includes details such as pump speed, vibrations, misalignment, bearing condition and imbalance. In addition, smart sensors attached to the motors connected to the pumps can detect a drop in water flow based on the output power of the motor.  

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Digitalisation also extends to variable speed drives (VSDs). Drive data can be uploaded to the cloud via a remote monitoring solution. This allows data from the drive, motor and pump to be analysed together, providing insights on the health and performance of the complete powertrain.

While water companies are always monitoring their networks for changes in pipe pressures and flow of water (that can indicate problems such as blockages and leakages), sometimes the first warning they receive is when a customer notifies them of a burst water pipe. Digitalisation can trigger the earliest possible warning. The earlier or quicker utilities can prevent treated water being wasted, the higher the savings, not to mention the boost in customer confidence.  Non-treated water, also known as wastewater is a real problem if its leaks in the environment. Utilities can be fined, not to mention the safety hazards for people, property and image of a water utility. 

How hard is digitalisation to implement?

The water utility sector has made great strides in the uptake of digital technology. However, there is still plenty of scope for improvement. And because technology has evolved, and the prices of smart devices have decreased, it’s possible to take a great leap forward to achieve a true digital transformation.

Ripping out all the existing hardware is probably not the best approach. Utilities need to start with a clear strategic plan to create a full ecosystem. This can start by dividing the water network into discrete zones and identifying what is needed to address the specific challenges in each. Effectively, it is best to start small by adding to existing technology. In this sense, smart sensors are the perfect starting point as they can be placed on a motor, pump, bearings or gearing. They are easy to connect and use, without having to invest in new, expensive systems.

Successful application in Singapore

In the bustling city-state of Singapore, its water utility focuses on one main goal: to make sure that the rapidly growing metropolis – with few natural water sources and limited landmass – has a steady supply of clean water. To add to the challenge, water demand is set to double in the next four decades over its current consumption of over 400 million gallons a day. High operational costs, rising energy usage and a national workforce shortage compelled Singapore to think beyond convention.

ABB and the Public Utilities Board (PUB), the water utility, conducted a successful pilot, which involved installing smart sensors on the PUB’s motors and pumps. The real-time data obtained via the sensors allowed the utility to reduce troubleshooting time, as well as resources and paperwork.

ABB then installed an integrated solution with 22 smart sensors, remote condition monitoring and augmented reality glasses (Microsoft HoloLens) to assist with maintenance and training. It also installed six digital powertrains, which integrate sensor and drive data with cloud-based analytics along the entire chain of plant equipment – from drives and motors to pumps and bearings. The condition monitoring portal allows the PUB to configure the powertrains easily and monitor critical health and operating parameters via a single portal. The digital powertrains, in turn, alert the utility to warning signs of failure, which helps reduce maintenance costs.

Looking ahead

A smart city is often described as a ‘system of systems,’ where the Internet of Things (IoT) and analytics converge with traditional infrastructure. These cities use IoT and analytics capabilities to reach operational efficiency and improve service levels, sustainability and economic vitality. Previously siloed sectors such as power, transport, disaster management and water all work in sync.

Many cities around the world have made great strides in digitising several areas of infrastructure, such as energy and transport. Still, most have yet to connect their water supplies to their smart city strategies and systems. However, the threat of growing scarcity may push more cities toward smart water management systems.