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Computers in our sewers

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Itai Boneh
Product Research Lead at Kando Clear Upstream
  • Computers in our sewers
  • As originally published in Bloomberg News on May 18, 2020

Have you ever dropped your phone in the toilet and decided to leave it there?

That is what wastewater utilities all over the world are deciding to do. Well not exactly the smartphones we use every day and not directly in toilets, but these utilities are purposely deploying smart devices into sewage networks. Simply put, the wastewater collection system of many urban centers is receiving a digital makeover.

Whether we like to think about it or not, our sewage networks require a lot of maintenance. These systems need to be monitored constantly to remain operational. The obvious complication is that our collection systems are below the surface and difficult to access. Additionally, these systems are sporadic; things such as blockages or toxic discharge can happen at any time and anywhere.

To respond to these types of issues, wastewater personnel would usually wait until the problem becomes observable; until the wastewater has overflowed into the streets or until the toxin has reached the municipal river. In a different sense, when the problem has already caused damage.

The wastewater collection system of many urban centers is receiving a digital makeover

New Innovations for Technological Advancement

Once technological advancement had reached a certain pinnacle, many utilities started adopting new innovations to cope with these fundamental challenges. By applying a set of sensors and computers, wastewater operators were able to collect data that would let them “see” underground. Thus, utilities had a method of identifying problems as they occur—before they cause significant damage. And like our personal computers—our smartphones—these innovations have continued to evolve to become more accurate and comprehensive.

For example, we now have sensors that can detect precise concentrations of sulfur or BOD so that operators can react before these pollutants lead to corrosion of their pipes. Despite these types of advantageous breakthroughs, many utilities are only beginning to embrace this computerized method now.

On top of the challenges that were originally discussed, the water sector is facing a new set of external pressures that are pushing utilities towards further digitalization. A combination of urban sprawl, sustainability initiatives, and environmental variability has amplified internal demands.

As our cities expand in size, our collection systems are also taking in greater volumes of water—sometimes past what they were designed to handle. These same cities are increasing their water usage, and while climate change is exacerbating drought conditions, many places like California, Texas, and Singapore are looking towards wastewater reuse as a potential water source.

Aside from the regions that look at wastewater as a resource, municipalities, in general, are pushing for tighter regulations on wastewater quality which requires additional supervision. All of this is occurring while our planet is experiencing greater weather events, flooding, and saltwater intrusion from sea level rise; all of which ends up in our collection systems. As these pressures become increasingly evident, more and more utilities have turned to the prospect of a computerized system for assistance.

The more accessible data that can be collected from a digital network can be dynamically applied to locate saltwater intrusion or to pinpoint which manufacturer’s discharge is damaging the treatment process. Upon implementing its computerized network, the water utility in Haifa, Israel, was able to identify its most harmful polluter, and in El Paso, Texas, a digitalized system was deployed to enable expansion of its potable water supply from wastewater reuse. The utilities that have carried out these kinds of full-scale projects have recognized the benefits of automation which has other utilities following suit.

Aside from the regions that look at wastewater as a resource, municipalities, in general, are pushing for tighter regulations on wastewater quality which requires additional supervision

Covid-19’s Effect

Today, the world is facing a new type of challenge, one that is affecting every single sector and the water service is no exception. The Covid-19 pandemic has curtailed the productivity of many wastewater utilities. Even though this virus has been detected in sewage systems, utilities are sometimes overwhelmed by the required treatment because of a limited workforce.

And, these stay-at-home orders for operators have also worsened the reaction times to increased municipal clogging from flushing non-flushable materials. The advantages of digitalization can also be appreciated under these circumstances. The utilities that have a computerized network are able to monitor and control it remotely. So even when personnel can no longer work on-site, they can still manage their utility from home.

When asked how he would have been better prepared for the Covid-19 outbreak, Chau Sai-Wai, the deputy director of Hong Kong’s Water Supplies (one of the largest and most advanced water utilities in the world) responded, “Technology keeps on advancing. There may be more opportunities for working from home and more remote working” (GWI).

The digital revolution of wastewater utilities has not only offered a solution to the sector’s intrinsic complexities but has continued to be valuable with emerging ones. Like its applicability during the unforeseen Covid-19 pandemic, the answers to future problems can be found in automation. Today’s leading challenges such as pharmaceutical’s in our water system or amplifying effects from climate change still have operators stumped. Yet it’s clear that digitalization is the key to solving these problems.

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