By Jeremy D. Wells
Carter County Times
The Grayson Utilities water system is nearly 100 years old. The service first started serving customers in 1931, and over the ensuing 92 years it’s grown to serve hundreds of customers, inside and outside the city. Today the system has more than 300 miles of pipe, and treats more than 500 million gallons of water a year, on average.
The infrastructure laid down over the years has served them well, too. Some of those original cast iron pipes are still in the ground, and the service hasn’t had any complaints about the quality of the water they make. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t room for improvement, utilities superintendent Gerald Haney explained.
He said he knew there were some major issues with water loss, particularly before it reached customer’s homes. But determining exactly where that water was being lost was an issue
When water is lost after it passes a customer’s meter, it’s easy to pinpoint leaks or other issues – like open taps. The customer sees an increase in usage that they can’t explain, and they know that somewhere between their meter and their tap, there is a leak. You might not know exactly where right away, but you know what area you have to search.
What Haney needed was a tool that allowed him to narrow down those focus areas across the 300 miles pipe in the city’s water system. But the options offered to him were often impractical. For instance, one option pitched to the utilities commission was a portable flow meter that could be attached to pipes to measure the flow in a specific stretch of pipes. But, in order to use that device they would need to dig a trench next to each section of pipe they wished to monitor. Then they needed to attach and configure the device, a finnicky and tedious process that could take several hours to calibrate. Even after all that work, he said, they might not get any useful information.
What Haney needed was something like the meters at each home, but spread out throughout the system so they could monitor the flow as it went through a section of pipe. But more than that, they needed a way to collect and analyze that data.
Knowing how much water went past a certain section of pipe in and of itself isn’t useful. They needed a way to take that data, compare it against customer usage, and see if they were sending more water to a neighborhood or area than the customers in that area were using.
If so, it could mean there was some kind of leak in that area or that other unreported usage was occurring.
The technology, Haney explained, just wasn’t there yet. Not just the monitoring technology, but the ability to parse the data it collected.
“There’s been a whole bunch of attempts,” Haney said. “It wasn’t like we waited 10 years and said, ‘Oh, maybe we’ll work on water loss today.’ We were constantly working on it.”
But, he continued, it wasn’t until recently that the technology caught up with the idea.
“Mainly, the technology finally caught up with the idea, and it’s an engineered process, versus the tool we were just talking about (the portable flow meter),” Haney said.
That new set of tools, and the software that runs them, come from Integrity Water and Energy, and they’ve already cut the utilities’ water loss by 20 percent. That comes to around 70 million gallons of water a year in waste that they’ve cut since implementing the new metering system; a number that’s expected to go up as they continue with other improvements, like an upcoming project to replace old 6 inch cast iron pipes along Robert & Mary with larger diameter 8 inch PVC.
The way the system works is by dividing the service area into different regions which are monitored with flow meters. Not the type that were pitched to Haney in the past, but built in meters, housed in sturdy, “state-of-the-art” concrete enclosures and – this is the important part – monitored in real time. These meters, which measure the flow before it reaches customers’ homes or businesses, are
combined with data recorded from the billing meters at each location, which can also be read remotely. The data gathered, when it is read correctly, can allow the utility service to narrow down their target areas for leaks.
Whereas in the past they would rely on reports from customers of major water line breaks, and try to pinpoint other areas affected by listening for the hiss of water escaping a broken pipe, now they can use flow data to narrow down their search area.
The $4.8 million project has already paid for itself in savings, and the benefits are only expected to grow, Haney said. For instance, instead of running their treatment system continuously, as they had to do when they were losing half the water they treated, they can now shut the system down, allowing the engines to cool and extending their lifespan. It also frees staff up to do routine maintenance to the system that they can’t when it is running, which will also help keep it in service longer.
In addition, Haney said, there is a decrease in the amount of chemicals they have to use, the amount of electricity they use, and other efficiency improvements. The ability to read meters remotely also means they aren’t using as much gas to manually read meters, and staff are free to focus on repairs and improvements instead of spending time driving from meter to meter. This pattern builds on itself, and can continue to increase efficiency and save on costs over time, Integrity Water and Energy’s Brandon Marcum explained.
And though customers can’t log in and monitor their own water usage in real time, the utility can see any spikes in usage as they occurred, instead of just showing up when the meter is read, which enables them to answer billing questions more efficiently. For instance, if they see an increase in usage at a time that coincides with the installation of a new pool or plumbing repairs, this may explain an increase in billing for the month.
Haney added that while the main focus was on the improvements to the water system, the utility also chose to install new gas meters that could be read remotely at the same time. The cost on that was manageable, he said, because it used the already existing technology to read the water meters remotely. It also benefits customers by giving them a more reliable billing cycle.
While water usage is generally consistent enough that they could estimate usage and adjust later, if necessary, when weather made it difficult to read meters, gas usage wasn’t that consistent. It varies wildly by address and season, depending on how many appliances run on gas. So, when inclement weather made it hard to read meters, customer could have inconsistent billing cycles.
With the remote reading, that’s no longer an issue no matter the weather.
The changes have already allowed them to avoid the rate increases some other utility systems have had to implement, Haney said, something he also attributed in part to the efficiency of Integrity. Because of their connections and relationships in the industry, they were able to source supplies and keep the project mostly on target even with shipping delays related to the pandemic – completing the project in just two years. Without their work, Haney said, it just wouldn’t have been possible.
Others had approached him with a similar plan, he said, but they just wanted to sell them the materials. The utility would then have to complete the project with their own staff.
“And I’m like, ‘I can’t,’” Haney said. “There’s no way I can do that. I can’t. How are my six guys going to go out and do all that? Do all they already do plus change (all these meters)? It would take me 20 years to do it!”
“It would’ve never gotten to this point (with the other options),” he continued. “So, when Brandon came along, I was very open to hearing how he we could accomplish it. So, it wasn’t like I wasn’t searching for an answer (to the water loss).”
And now, he said, they finally have that answer, and a thoroughly modern and efficient water system, which Haney said was humbling.
“It’s something,” he said, “to take a 100 year old system and bring it into the next century.”
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