Water scarcity is not something that most American water professionals spend a lot of time planning for. However, as we experience more extreme weather, it’s becoming more common for more parts of the country to experience water shortages at some point during the year. Addressing aging infrastructure is an ongoing priority for most water utilities as they look at ways of reducing non-revenue water (NRW) loss that can be as high as 30% in some water systems. With more states now requiring water loss audits and the federal government committing over $50 billion to improve the nation’s water infrastructure, utilities are rising to the challenge of reducing non-revenue water loss.
Globally, we are currently consuming the resources of 1.75 earths to sustain our current population, and if we continue on the same trajectory and factor in population growth, the situation could rapidly become more dire. Over half of the world’s major aquifers are being depleted faster than they are being replenished, including the Central Valley and Ogallala aquifers in the U.S. Water sustainability has never been more important and needs to be the focal point for preventing water scarcity in the U.S.
Reducing NRW loss by doubling down on pressure management
A lot can be learned from other countries that have already had close calls, such as Cape Town, South Africa, that came very close to “day zero” of water supply in mid-January of 2018. While the public faced tremendous restrictions during this time, the city had been working hard to reduce NRW. When a water crisis is imminent, the best chance of avoiding a “day zero” situation is to double down on pressure management.
Cape Town used this strategy by establishing District Metered Areas (DMAs), installing pressure reducing valves (PRVs), and using Mueller’s advanced pressure management solution. Having the ability to precisely control critical point pressure at the PRVs gave the city the ability to manage water flow more effectively through intelligent, self-learning technology. The end-result was a significant reduction in pipe bursts, leakage, and ultimately decreasing real water loss.
Using AMI to control water and reduce consumption
In the U.S., drought extremes have been intensifying, particularly in California (with severe drought in 2006-10 and 2011-15) and Texas (with severe drought in 2005-06, 2007-08, and 2010-15). Many water utilities in both states have made an impressive investment in advanced metering infrastructure (AMI) which provides up to the minute insight on water usage. If there is a sudden surge, indicating a pipe burst, the utility can shut off the supply and dispatch a repair team, reducing water loss and further damage.
Some municipalities with AMI systems are also sharing data with their customers through mobile apps. By giving residents detailed information about their water usage, customers can better manage their own consumption and even shut off water if a leak or pipe burst occurs. If a resident is heading off for the weekend and forgot to turn off their sprinklers, they can even shut off their water via the app until they return.
Smart assets help utilities monitor and prepare for severe weather events
Sensors can be added throughout water distribution networks to collect operational data 24 hours a day. Having this data on a single, centralized water intelligence platform allows utilities to monitor, control, and monetize their water distribution networks.
Smart assets like hydrants, meters and remote pressure monitors provide utilities with the ability to capture pressure, flow, leak, and temperature data through state-of-the art sensors installed at virtually any access point along the pipeline.
Automated flushing reduces NRW
Smart assets allow for automation and remote control. This ensures assets are being used under the conditions they were designed for and also allow utilities to address multiple objectives. For example, recent advancements in automated flushing, enable utilities to flush water lines based on temperature and PH rather than a set schedule. Not only is it a safer approach by inducing flushing when water quality is an issue, flushing does not occur when it is not needed. A smart automated flushing unit only flows until the water quality has been restored, as opposed to traditional units that run water for a set time period. By only flushing when it’s needed and for the amount of time necessary, utilities can significantly reduce NRW loss.
Mobile apps offer efficiencies in repair
IoT is helping utilities leapfrog the challenges posed with aging water infrastructure. Digital solutions are being used in the field, giving operators the ability to make efficient repairs with apps that scan QR codes, so crews have access to valuable installation information and required resources while in the field. Getting to repairs quicker means utilities can stay on top of repairs and avoid potentially bigger issues. With smart asset management tools, utilities can better plan projects and track outcomes.
Sustainable materials last longer and provide environmental benefits
Using quality materials is a key factor in sustainability for many reasons. Longer lasting products result in less breakage and subsequently, less NRW loss. It also translates into less production time which takes its own toll on water consumption and use of source material. New materials are being sourced for their sustainability benefits, like lead-free silicon-based copper alloys. Silicon is the second most abundant element in earth’s crust, while bismuth (used in copper alloys) is only about twice as abundant as gold and is a by-product of lead mining. Silicon-based copper alloys not only have a longer lasting life but also consistently exhibit zero dezincification.
North American manufacturers are going to great lengths to meet rigorous standards, like those laid out by AWWA, NSF, and BABA. A simple change in choice of material can impact the design life, function, and performance. American water utilities are fortunate to have many quality manufacturers that are also recognized as leaders in technology with many solutions to choose from, including support services. This means utilities of all sizes have access to experts that are willing to listen, share local knowledge, and help find the right solutions to address individual needs.
The future of water is now
It takes all of us – as individuals, water operators, scientists, manufacturers, policy makers, and regulatory bodies – to come together and manage our planet’s water challenges. Whether you are in a water-scarce part of the world or not, using any of these strategies can help reduce non-revenue water loss and over consumption. Water is vital to all life, and we need to deploy every tool possible to protect and preserve the planet’s most valuable natural resource.