Water Utilities Remote Monitoring in the Age of COVID-19

The COVID-19 outbreak is pushing organizations across America to close shop to disrupt the spread of the virus. While some businesses can safely shutter temporarily, there are a few essential services that can’t shut down — like water treatment plants and other utilities.

Many water treatment professionals are limiting travel outside or self-quarantining, straining the workforce. While most utilities are confident they can maintain operations, 75% of them are concerned about the impact absenteeism may have on their ability to keep running.

At the same time, changing consumer habits are creating new problems for utilities — like sewers clogged by cleaning products that aren’t meant to be flushed.

Advancements in industrial management tech over the past few years have made several new monitoring systems possible. Some of them allow utility workers to keep an eye on facilities without needing to be on-site. As employers carefully manage workers to avoid the spread of coronavirus, remote monitoring systems may become extraordinarily useful.

Here is how water utilities are using remote monitoring during the COVID-19 crisis.

Digital Water Technology During the Coronavirus Outbreak

In a recent paper published in Water World, former utility CEOs George Hawkins and Andy Kricun — both now with water nonprofit Moonshot Missions — recommended that water utilities immediately expand their remote communications tech and increase the use of off-site monitoring technology. These solutions, they write, can help reduce the risk that personnel are sickened by the virus and increase available staff on the backbench who can come into the plant if necessary to maintain operations.

Centralized services allow plants to monitor for issues like the growth of Legionella bacteria when it’s not safe for a technician to come to the site and manually inspect that equipment. With these tools in place, workers may also remotely adjust operating conditions — like biocide feed levels — to fix the problem without needing to come on-site.

For some municipal water utilities, remote monitoring and other digital water technology is already the norm. In Williams County, Ohio, municipal water utilities have used remote technology since 2010 to monitor sewer flow, run-times and general operating conditions. More recently, the city of Rohnert Park, California, was able to successfully use remote sewer sensors to catch and stop illegal dumping.

However, digital water isn’t standard yet across the industry. Many companies continue to rely on analog tech that requires workers to be present — putting them at risk and increasing the impact of absenteeism.

While we are still in the early days of the current crisis and strain on utilities may continue to grow, there are already signs that municipalities that have adopted digital water technology are faring better than others.

Albert Cho, vice president and general manager at water technology company Xylem, wrote in early April that utilities with digital systems “have adapted far more easily” to the crisis than those relying on analog tech that can’t be adjusted by off-site workers. One utility leader quoted in the piece said that “[because] we can run large parts of our system remotely … our life hasn’t changed all that much.”

Keeping Water Utilities Running with Remote Monitoring Tech

While some states are beginning to reopen their economies, many organizations and individuals are choosing to continue practicing social distancing and other policies that slow the spread of the coronavirus. Even as some businesses begin to reopen, the pressures that COVID-19 has put on water utilities aren’t likely to go away — at least, not in the near future.

Remote monitoring technology can help water utilities keep their employees safe by reducing the amount of on-site personnel they need for standard operations.

Digital water technology isn’t standard across the water industry yet. However, the current crisis may push utilities that have relied on analog tech to reconsider the upgrade to remote solutions.

This article was written by Emily Folk, a freelance writer covering topics in green technology and sustainability. You can follow her on her blog, Conservation Folks, or Twitter @EmilySFolk for her latest updates.

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