IBM's smart tech aids water management

IBM's smart tech aids water management

Parys Ryszard via Shutterstock

Some of the most compelling, early smart-city strategies are bubbling up in municipal and commercial water management. That's partly because budget shortfalls are making it tough to invest in new infrastructure. Yet wastewater runoff and leaky pipes can cost cities thousands of dollars annually, in excess billing or regulatory fines.

The city of South Bend, Ind., has used the IBM Intelligent Operations Center (IOC) dashboard since late 2011 to view data pooled from across city agencies. This has reduced wet weather wastewater overflows by 23 percent, and almost entirely eliminated dry-weather incidents such as clogged sewers. Not only did it sidestep $120 million in infrastructure upgrades along the way, but the application is helping to avoid some $600,000 in potential government fines.

The city of 500,000 used a local IT services company, Emnet, to create and deploy the cloud-hosted tool.

"Anticipating and preventing incidents before they happen is key," said Gary Gilot, member of the South Bend board of public works, when the deal was announced. "Viewing all our aggregated data in real time via the IBM SmartCloud will help us predict where incidents can occur and safeguard our citizens."

South Bend apparently was the first city to start managing its water consumption and flow using a cloud-based service. Its water distribution system includes eight production facilities, four filtration plants and more than 600 miles of distribution pipes. The wastewater utility manages 500 miles of sewers.

Using IBM's IOC dashboard and analytics, the city has reduced the flow of water through treatment plants by almost 10 million gallons per day, simply by better keeping river waste out. It also reportedly predicts basement flooding more accurately during heavy rainfalls and directs water utility crews there proactively.

Over the past decade, South Bend has deployed more than 116 smart valves throughout its system to collect the necessary data. It turned to IBM when it became clear that it needed helping interpreting the data – but didn't have the money for substantial IT infrastructure investment. Instead, the city spent about $400,000 on a proof-of-concept installation, and it took a project manager approximately five hours per week for six months to prepare. Following early positive results, the solution extended to the entire city. While IBM doesn't disclose the annual subscription costs, South Bend is realizing an average benefit of about $326,321, according to a case study from February. The payback started within one and a half years.

"By using the information they were already collecting and being proactive, they were able to avoid massive outlays," said Carey Hidaka, client solution professional for the Chicago office of IBM Software, a civil engineer specializing in water.

Is it a leak or higher-than-usual evaporation?

Miami-Dade County in Florida is a much newer IBM smart water customer, but the solution it is developing will have a dramatic impact on conservation – starting with the roughly 260 parks it supports.

Across this system, more than 300 water and sewer accounts were using approximately 360 million gallons of water annually, estimated Jack Kardys, director of Miami-Dade Parks, Recreation and Open Spaces. At one time, one of its golf courses held the dubious honor of being among the top five users of potable water in the United States, he said.

One of the biggest sources of waste across the system have been leaks and things that are far easier to address, such as when someone leaves a hose running at one of the county's close to 1,000 boat slips that offer freshwater rinse services. But the only insight that park managers previously received were the water bills – by the time some detected an anomaly, a leak or open valve could be running for days if not weeks. "We were lucky to find them after the fact," Kardys said.

By piggybacking on Miami-Dade's larger cross-county partnership with IBM, the parks department now expects to save up to $1 million per year on its water bills. Its IBM application has allowed it to set monitoring parameters for valves, triggering an alert if they run for more than a certain time.

Overall, the county expects to reduce water consumption by 20 percent through the new solution, Kardys estimated.

Image of red water pipes via Parys Ryszard/Shutterstock

The business of conservation

Municipal governments aren't the only ones that stand to benefit from M2M smart water technologies. Businesses can save significantly on operational expenses.

Desert Mountain, a 4,500-person community in Scottsdale, Ariz., is using IBM's IOC to reduce water and energy consumption related to watering its six championship golf courses by 5 to 20 percent. It is also monitoring soil moisture, weather forecasts, fertilizer applications and utility pricing data.

Desert Mountain buys about 1 billion gallons of water per year (a large portion of that reclaimed from the municipal water department). The technology is helping to reduce water purchases, adjust watering schedules or reallocate supplies among the 13 lakes across the property's 8,000 acres, said Shawn Emerson, director of agronomy at Desert Mountain.

"I can decide how much power or water I want to pump at certain times," he said.

Aside from IBM IOC, the community is using IBM Business Partner UgMO Technologies' Wireless Soil Moisture Sensor Solution. (Desert Mountain owns 176 sensors; about 120 are in operation, the other 50 are being redeployed.)

Because the IOC dashboard is hosted in the cloud, 12 people on Desert Mountain's 650-employee staff list can monitor the data when they want, although it's a primary focus for two of them. The data is updated at 10-minute intervals, so consider it near real-time.

The annual water budget for Desert Mountain in the past has been $1.6 million (including power costs), and the community is striving for 10 percent reductions against that. Its breakeven point is about $75,000, Emerson estimated, and he describes that as "ahead of the curve" when it comes to return on investment.

From reservoirs to lakes

Can M2M technologies also play a role in better managing natural ecosystems? IBM certainly intends to try. One of its most ambitious project so far centers on the crystal-clear waters of Lake George in New York state, surrounded almost entirely by natural forestland (almost 46 percent of which is state preserved).

The long-term health of the lake – which covers approximately 44 square miles -- is directly tied to almost $1 billion of annual tourism revenue in the surrounding region. So it is in the state's interest to manage factors such as road salt, storm water runoff or invasive species that could negatively affect water quality.

Over the next three years, a multi-million dollar initiative spearheaded by Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, IBM and the FUND for Lake George will use sensors, data analytics and 3-D modeling to improve their scientific understanding of the ecosystem there.

"Lake George has a lot to teach us, if we look closely," said Rensselaer President Shirley Ann Jackson when the partnership was announced. "By expanding Rensselaer's Darrin Fresh Water Institute with this remarkable new cyberphysical platform of data from sensors and other sources, and with advanced analytics, high-performance computing and Web science, we are taking an important step to protect the timeless beauty of Lake George and we are creating a global model for environmental research and protect of water resources."

The Jefferson Project at Lake George, named for President Thomas Jefferson's comments about the lake, will focus on mapping water circulation, teaming the data collected from sensors with the 3-D models. This will provide scientists with a better picture of how both nutrients and contaminants are spread around. They are especially concerned with rising chlorophyll levels, which are related to salt applied to roads to clear snow and ice. The technology for running the simulations will be part of a new Smarter Water laboratory and visualization studio being built by Rensselaer at the lake.

IBM is participating in similar research projects in Brazil's Rio de Janeiro, Ireland's Galway Bay and New York's Hudson River.

Image of red water pipes via Parys Ryszard/Shutterstock