How can the water industry benefit from remote monitoring?

  • Articles
  • Sep 16,21
Traditionally, the majority of water monitoring has been done manually. Emily Newton explains the benefits of remote monitoring and other networked technologies for the water industry.
How can the water industry benefit from remote monitoring?

The human body can survive for weeks without food, but only for a few days without water. Water is, without a doubt, the most important natural resource on the planet, which is why it's related industries are so expansive. Traditionally, the majority of water monitoring has been done manually. Still, with utility grids trying to supply safe and potable water to billions of people, that isn’t the most efficient way to accomplish these tasks anymore. 

How can the water industry benefit from remote monitoring and other networked technologies? What are the risks of doing so, and how can they be overcome?

Implementing the Industrial Internet of Things
It’s necessary to learn about the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) to understand remote monitoring as it can be applied to the water industry. This is a blanket term used to describe any and all smart devices networked throughout a home or business. Smart lights, thermostats, garage door openers and the like all fall under this category. Its use in industrial applications is one of the deciding factors fueling the Fourth Industrial Revolution, also known as Industry 4.0.

These networked devices are finding their way into nearly every industry in various forms. For example, drones are popping up as inspection tools. Built-in sensors can find applications in almost any sector. In the water industry, remote monitoring is quickly becoming the most popular application. 

Benefits of Remote Monitoring
There are many ways the water industry benefits from the application of remote monitoring as part of its infrastructure. Often, they outweigh any drawbacks that may go along with implementation.

Cost Reduction
Monitoring thousands of miles of infrastructure can be challenging, even with a full crew and a network of tools at their disposal. Remote monitoring allows team members to avoid pipe or water main breaks, reduce the number of redundant pump stations and prevent sewer overflows before they happen. 

The water industry was already facing labor shortages before the pandemic, largely due to an aging workforce.  While remote monitoring will never replace a skilled worker who knows how to interpret the information and act accordingly, it can reduce costs by picking up some of the slack. 

Improved Maintenance
It simply isn’t humanly possible to monitor and maintain every inch of an entire water and wastewater infrastructure. However, remote monitoring makes the task a little less insurmountable. The information collected by these monitoring stations can be fed back into machine learning systems that sort through the data, using it to create predictive models. 

It’s not necessarily fortune-telling, but it can help create models that can predict failure points and necessary maintenance. You can also use this data to design better components for your wastewater management system if necessary. This allows the crew to respond proactively instead of reacting to problems when they occur.

Better Service
Identifying problems so teams can prevent them before they impact the local grid will improve the service they can provide to the community. Barring catastrophic failures, remotely monitoring systems will result in fewer service interruptions and make it easier for the companies to deliver safe potable water to their local service area. This will also reduce any complaint calls representatives have to deal with, freeing them up to do other work.

Challenges of Remote Monitoring
The IIoT is quickly becoming an invaluable tool. However, as with any new technology, it has its drawbacks and challenges that could make it difficult or even impossible to implement in a timely fashion.

Maintaining a Reliable Network 
IIoT devices — and really anything defined as part of the Internet of Things — requires a solid Wi-Fi infrastructure to function. If one component fails, the monitoring stations can’t communicate with the central command, leaving them chock full of important data the system can’t use. Localized power outages, such as those caused by lightning strikes or equipment failures, can take these systems offline as well. 

If the Wi-Fi networks aren’t secure, companies could find their bandwidth stolen by users around the local area. The theft might not always be malicious, but it will interfere with the functionality of the IIoT system.

Enormous Initial Investments
Equipping the existing water and wastewater infrastructure with IIoT monitoring sensors will represent a significant initial investment. These devices will eventually pay for themselves, but for small towns or municipalities that may not have the funds to maintain their water systems, let alone upgrade them, it could put the costs far out of reach. 

Unlike other more sustainable infrastructure improvements, there are currently no incentives for cities to help support the adoption of these technologies for remote maintenance and water monitoring. 

The Threat of Cyberattack
As with any networked system, there is always the threat of cyberattack. Hackers using IIoT devices to make their way into the main network could increase water pressure until mains break, introduce dangerous levels of chemicals into the supply that are usually used to make the water potable or even shut the system down entirely. 

One water treatment plant in Florida experienced this firsthand in March 2021, when a hacker made their way into the system and increased the level of sodium hydroxide in the water to more than 100 times its normal levels. Workers were able to correct the problem before it put the public at risk, but the threat is clear. There are ways into these water infrastructure systems, and adding more networked devices increases that risk. Even secure IIoT devices aren’t foolproof or safe from hackers. 

Moving Forward With Remote Monitoring in the Water Industry
These downsides shouldn’t discourage cities that are considering implementing remote monitoring to support their water infrastructure. There are just as many benefits of remote monitoring as there are challenges, and it will take some time to create a system that will work well for each unique city or municipality. Once everything comes together, the positives should be clear.

Remote monitoring can help improve customer service, prevent problems and make it easier to maintain the miles of water and wastewater pipes and systems that support populations around the globe.

About the author:
Emily Newton is a tech and industrial journalist with over four years of experience writing articles for the industrial sector. She is Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized, an online publication exploring innovations in manufacturing, technology and science.

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