Water, wastewater industry is going digital and getting smarter

The water and wastewater industry is improving digitalization and automation with smarter sensors designed to make operations safer.

By Chris Vavra September 27, 2019

Technology updates in the water/wastewater industry flowed through McCormick Place with the annual Water Environment Federation’s Technical Exhibition and Conference (WEFTEC) conference. The conference, Sept. 21-25, 2019, highlighted many of the latest developments in instrumentation, digitalization, pumps, and other technologies.

Those in the water/wastewater industry are meeting challenges like any other industry: Making products that are smarter, faster, cheaper, lowering worker risk, and improving cybersecurity.

Information control in water and wastewater industry

One common theme running throughout WEFTEC was the growing need to get information to customers. There is a lot of information users need from their pumps, pipes, filtration systems and more. How can the information be securely accessed? Digital technology, particularly in the form of process sensors, is becoming a major tool.

“The digital industry is upon us in the water and wastewater industry,” said Alan Vance, industry manager – environmental, Endress+Hauser Group.

The products Vance demonstrated were largely focused on two things: Using sensors to gather the information and then transmitting the data to the user on a human-machine interface (HMI), a digital screen or a mobile device and provide the information to the operator.

“Every wastewater plant today uses analytics,” Vance said. “The big difference today is the sensors are smart. Instead of a manual reading, it’s all 1’s and 0’s. It’s all digital.”

Updated digital systems, properly used and configured, can help address cybersecurity concerns in ways legacy systems cannot.

Increased automation and safety

Automation also is increasing in the water/wastewater industry. According to Clay Mallett, a water industry specialist for ABB, that is a good thing.

“I operated in the water and wastewater industry for 24 years, and the one thing I learned is the more I could take out of the operator’s control and automate it, the better we could meet our goals and improve treatment.”

Increasing automation provides another incentive. Many of the sensors and devices used to track performance in water/wastewater are in locations most people would not want to go regularly. Automating the data collection process and alerting workers to problems remotely improves overall efficiency and makes worker happier.

“It’s all about, in the end, keeping our workers happy, providing them the data they need and giving them peace of mind,” said Tracy Long, vice president, marketing communication, ABB Motors & Mechanical.

Mallett, during the tour, emphasized the same thing with some of his products, which are designed to have as little as 10 minutes of maintenance per year. All the operator has to do is change a few pipes or switches and everything is set to go.

It’s a good thing, in some cases, workers don’t have to interact with some of these pipes or pumps because they could be funneling dangerous chemicals.

Dave Stewart, director of marketing and international for Hayward Flow Control, said they’ve worked on developing products designed to withstand harsh contents and conditions.

“Everything we design is there to protect your instrumentation, and it can run night and day at a water treatment plant without you having to worry,” he said.

Narrowing the skills gap in water/wastewater

Stewart hopes increased automation and sophistication will help address another challenge the water/wastewater industry faces: A shortage of young workers.

“There’s not a lot of young blood,” Stewart said. “It’s very rare for me to go to a water treatment plant and see a worker under the age of 30, which is a shame because there is tremendous security.”

The skills and age gap is going to become an even bigger issue as the water supply dwindles, particularly in the Western U.S. Desalination plants can’t be constructed fast enough, Stewart said.

Stewart mentioned Australia as an example of how they’ve attracted younger workers. The urgency of their water situation, he said, played a role, and they were able to attract young workers because the issue mattered a great deal in their country.

“It’s something we’re going to have to do in this country in the next 5 to 10 years because it’s coming, and we’re not ready for it,” Stewart said.

Even with that, the smart technology on display at WEFTEC offers some hope for a brighter tomorrow.

Chris Vavra, production editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media & Technology, cvavra@cfemedia.com.

Author Bio: Chris Vavra is senior editor for WTWH Media LLC.