As a young student, I would have loved a report card that came out only once every four years. But if I had one, I would have hoped for something better than a C-minus. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) issued its quadrennial Report Card for America’s Infrastructure, using an A-to-F school report card format. It examines current infrastructure conditions and needs, assigns grades, and makes recommendations for how to improve across 17 categories of infrastructure.
In the drinking water category, ASCE raised significant concerns in assigning the C-minus grade. Here’s an excerpt:
“The [water] system is aging and underfunded. There is a water main break every two minutes, and an estimated 6 billion gallons of treated water lost each day in the U.S. enough to fill over 9,000 swimming pools.”
The challenges cited in the report are familiar to most in the water utility business. Aging infrastructure and increasing compliance costs has many utilities struggling to invest in their systems. Maintenance costs reached an all-time high of $50.2 billion above capital costs in 2017, in part due to deferred capital projects. Most alarming is a survey cited in the report that showed that “47% of the maintenance work undertaken by utilities is reactive and done as systems fail.”
But there were encouraging signs in the report. There is emerging hope for more robust federal financing programs. Also, water utilities are slowly raising rates to reinvest in their systems. Further, the report estimated that more than 12,000 miles of water pipes were planned to be replaced by drinking water utilities across the country in 2020 alone.
Water Asset Management Plans are a Bright Spot for Utilities
Most encouraging however was the rapid adoption of asset management plans at water utilities. The report said that a third of all utilities now have a “robust asset management program in place.” That’s up from 20% reported just a few years ago. Another 55% are in the process of implementing an asset management plan. Together, that means that 88% of water utilities have or will have an asset management plan. The industry has come a long way.
Asset management takes utility assets that are generally out-of-site and shines a light on them so they can be maintained and optimized, and risks can be avoided. Traditionally the health of these assets has been determined through static factors like age and material type. However, since water utility system conditions are dynamic, continuous asset data processed through machine learning software can allow utilities to plan, replace or maintain these assets with more precision and confidence.
Recommendations Underscore the Importance of Real Time Smart Water Technology
Among the eight specific recommendations made in the report was this:
“Increase utilities’ resilience by integrating smart water technologies such as machine learning software and real time data sensors into drinking water infrastructure systems.”
To those of us in the water tech space, this was an affirmation of the important work we do for water utilities. Our mission at Aquify is to leverage Exelon’s utility expertise and resources to make these smart water technologies, machine learning software and real time data sensors affordable and accessible to water utilities across the U.S. regardless of their size and location. We cannot solve the problems of America’s water infrastructure without a new approach to dealing with the tens of thousands of large, medium and small systems that comprise the majority of our pipes, pumps, plants and meters.
The call to action was expanded upon in the Resilience & Innovation section of the report:
“Utilities are also developing innovative smart water technologies such as leak detection, seismic resilient pipes, smart water quality monitoring, and real time data sensors, just to name a few. These technologies improve resilience by allowing utilities to respond to changing climate conditions, improve efficiency of operations by reducing water losses, and deliver real-time data that allows for interactive decision-making.”
Real time data to detect leaks. Interactive decision making. Reduce water losses. That’s a day-in-the-life of Aquify. We’re happy to be a providing a ‘new way’ for water utilities that might just allow a future report card to be honor-roll caliber.