The American Water Works Association (AWWA) and Water Environment Federation (WEF) Utility Management Conference was held this year in San Antonio, Texas from February 20th – 23rd. Michael Markides and Thomas Frashier of the Smart Utilities Infrastructure team attended the event for two days to hear the latest developments in the industry and about the daily problems faced by modern water utility managers.
Presentations at the conference varied widely in subject matter, from setting rate cases, to manhole cover maintenance, to hosting pancake parties for employee morale; but over the course of the event several key themes were repeatedly emphasized by presenters. The use of technology and planning to augment asset management and effective communication to customers were the two prevailing topics of this show.
Improving management through technology
It comes as little surprise that the leading theme of the Utility Management Conference, was management. While some speakers focused on the general aspects of management, many more gave case study style presentations over their own projects to share their experiences, challenges, best practices, and outcomes.
One recurring element for many utility speakers was the fact that most of them had not been getting the full value out of their existing data. Two examples stood out from the rest of the conference in this regard. One was Columbia Water, which worked with CDM Smith to create a customized dashboard to better display utility information for its management. The other was Clayton County Water Authority (CCWA) which worked with Valor Water Analytics to identify meters for replacement based on current and historical read data.
While the service provided and benefits differed, in both cases the utilities worked with their technology partner to identify ways in which they could better leverage historical and existing data, rather than focusing on data generation. This is not to suggest that data generation is not critical, but that the job does not stop there.
One speaker, Corey Williams of Optimatics, pointed to the SWAN Forum layered model of a Smart Water Network to emphasize his argument, that establishing a way to generate data is key, but that the focus for a utility needs to extend beyond that, to extracting the full value of their data. (https://www.swan-forum.com/resources/a-layered-view/) Both the projects at Columbia Water and CCWA demonstrated the value of advancing to this stage for the utility, and the increasing opportunity for technology vendors to help them do so.
Engaging customers as stakeholders…
Another key focus of the conference was on the need for utilities to engage with their customers effectively. This was particularly true for utilities which are needing to increase rates in line with investment or conservation goals. One utility which demonstrated success in this regard was the Mobile Area Water and Sewer System (MAWSS).
MAWWS faced the issue of needing to build customer buy-in to pass potentially unpopular rate increases which would fund significant infrastructure repair. Utility employees met with customers in town halls, and explained the problems in clear terms “there’s a city under the city, and it is crumbling” one MAWWS video expressed. Worn down pipes were even brought to the town hall meetings so that citizens could see for themselves the state of the system. In the end, this engagement was successful and while plans initially called for one year of rate increases, the city board eventually approved two 5% rate increases over each of the next two years.
… and the risks of failing to do so
In one of the most unique presentations of the conference, Dr. Manny Teodoro of Texas A&M presented his research on one of the potential risks of failing to engage the community. Over the last several years, the number of water kiosks has increased in the country, most notably in Texas. At these kiosks, potential utility customers can pay over 1000% as much for their daily drinking water instead of using the tap.
Dr. Teodoro’s analysis suggested that because of this, and because there was no relationship between water safety and the popularity of kiosks in an area, that the success of these kiosks indicates a general lack of trust in the public water supply. Teodoro defined the problem directly, at one point announcing to the crowd that “these kiosks profit directly off your bad reputation; whether you deserve it or not”.
While these kiosks might not seriously threaten utility revenue today, Teodoro cautioned that the distrust of their potential customers can only hurt utilities in the long run. At the close of his presentation, he called on utilities to question whether they are doing an adequate job informing their community. Leading utilities like MAWWS prove that not only is it possible, but that there are significant benefits in doing so.
Key takeaways for technology vendors to the water utility sector:
- Utility historical data is a potential gold mine. Today, new contracts for analytics powered by machine learning can deliver a high ROI through analysis which extracts value from existing data. However, the ongoing benefit for how these programs will deliver the same level of value for current data is less clearly demonstrated in the marketplace today. The ongoing benefits of such systems must be clearly defined to move ahead successfully.
- Data outputs should be designed with the question of how they will be used to aid the decision-making process for utility management. The success of custom built dashboards for data display represents a failure on the part of the original vendor to create a presentation that is fitted to the actual use cases of their users.
- Asset management continues to grow as a dominant operations strategic goal and way of thinking. Water utilities in North America is completely reorganizing staff, creating new departments and jobs, and investing in technology to layer all elements of their organization as better, and active participants in asset management.
- Open and honest communication with customers is a necessity. They can make system improvements easier or harder to accomplish. Effective engagement can put them on the utility’s side and vendors should actively support their utility customers in this effort. Conversely, utilities which fail in this regard face two major potential losses; the trust of their customers and, eventually, their business.