Maximum Efficiency at Minimum Cost

Water authority’s system upgrades are saving water and energy while increasing revenue and improving service
Maximum Efficiency at Minimum Cost
The WVWA team includes, from left, project manager Mike Altizer, environmental communications coordinator Sarah Baumgardner and executive director of water operations Gary Robertson.

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The Western Virginia Water Authority (WVWA) in Roanoke, Va., was formed in 2004 from existing city and county utilities. Much progress has been made in the past eight years, and the WVWA is now engaged in a systemwide upgrade, guided by Honeywell, utilizing state-of-the-art technology and protocols.

Their ambitious goals include saving energy and water, improving leak detection, better metering accuracy, increased system efficiency, cleaner water, and overall system sustainability. The up-front cost will be approximately $32 million, but once in place, the new system is expected to save $1 million in operational costs, and generate an additional $1.5 million in revenue, each year.

“We started with a list of seven vendors, narrowed that down to three interviews, and went with Honeywell in the end,” notes Gary Robertson, executive director of water operations. “After their nine-month audit of our system, they were willing to guarantee the savings in operational costs.

“Revenue, of course, is more dependent on economics, so we couldn’t hold Honeywell to that exact figure. But we still expected to see a lot of improvement, and that’s already happening. It looked like an everyone-wins scenario — for Honeywell, WVWA, and most importantly, our customers.”

Honeywell calibrated some 800 existing meters to make those projections before agreeing to Robertson’s request for guarantees. WVWA began this fast-tracked project last year, and all components are to be in place by early 2013. But there’s a lot of work yet to be done.


Metering is where

it all starts

With 58,000 antiquated dial meters in their system, replacement with electronic meters was one of their priorities. Their new Automatic Meter Infrastructure (AMI) system, which includes installation of a fixed-base network, provides several benefits.

First, it allows hourly readings to be pulled into their database. Compared to the “once every 60 days” protocol previously used, this is far more accurate and allows for quick identification of leaks, monitoring for unusual water use patterns and more accurate customer billing information.

One example of how well this works was recounted by project manager Mike Altizer.

“The first batch of electronic meters provided a good lesson,” he says. “We were contacted by a customer who was concerned about high water bills. By looking at his hourly data, we determined it was an irrigation system kicking in late at night. Since it was happening while the customer was away, he wasn’t aware of that water use. Once we showed him the hourly data, the issue was resolved.”

In addition to the point-of-use electronic meters, WVWA is installing zone meters to help isolate leaks on their side of the system. This is easy to do for new subdivisions, but a bit trickier in the City of Roanoke, where infrastructure is already in place. Zone meters can encompass anywhere from 100 to 500 customers, depending on the way the mains were installed.

“Then it’s just a matter of comparing point-of-use meters with the zone totals,” says Altizer. “If the numbers don’t match, we know we have a leak on our side. The electronic meters are polled hourly, and the receivers store that data. We poll the receivers four times a day to get that info onto our servers.”

All the meter data is immediately accessible via MeterSense software provided by Harris Computer Systems and recommended by Honeywell.

The meters use an RF signal to communicate with receivers mounted at strategic locations. Those receivers overlap in coverage, providing system redundancy and continued data flow should any one receiver go down.

“We prioritized the meter changeout starting with our larger commercial customers,” says Robertson. “Because the new meters will be more efficient, and likely report higher use rates, we talk to these customers beforehand so they know what to expect and aren’t suddenly surprised by higher bills.

“This is really where the whole project got started. I was just un-comfortable with the amount of what we call ‘unbilled water’ flowing through our system. That includes leaks as well as inaccurate meters. I could see we needed some way to better account for all that missing water.”

Meter automation has resulted in contract cancellations for three meter-reading subcontractors who used to perform that task. The four WVWA personnel who read meters are being reassigned to other in-house tasks. There will be no job losses, as is often the case when automating manual tasks.

“That actually worked out pretty good,” says Robertson. “We’d been wanting to do more valve exercising and unidirectional system flushing for regular maintenance, so that’s where our four employees are being repurposed.”


Energy savings systemwide

WVWA literally started at the top in their effort to achieve systemwide energy savings. With three treatment facilities requiring illumination, the opportunity for improvement was obvious even before the audit. Old lighting is being replaced by compact fluorescents or smaller and more efficient T-8 fluorescents.

During the audit, Honeywell surveyed the Carvins Cove, Crystal Spring and Spring Hollow filter plants. They identified 152 locations, some with dozens of fixtures. Everything from exit signs to restrooms was fair game. On lighting alone, WVWA is offsetting 168 metric tons of carbon dioxide. Electricity savings will shave an estimated $70,000 to $80,000 from their annual operating costs. Employees say the new lighting is sufficient to do their jobs, and provides a more soothing work environment.

Peak-shaving generators, fired by natural gas, will be installed to offset the demand use charge imposed by their utility after deregulation. This mainly affects pumping stations with legacy hardware. Ten years ago, when they negotiated a public utility contract with energy provider American Electric Power, there were no demand charges. Today, any facility drawing more than 25 kW incurs a demand charge.

“Installing peak-shaving generators will keep us under the 25 kW limit on many of our pumps,” Robertson says. “We won’t have to worry about time-of-use constraints, and we can pump when we need to pump.”

The authority is currently paying 7.5 cents per kWh, plus peak-demand charges.

These improvements will have a sizeable impact on sustainability. The upgrades will trim electricity use by nearly 5 million kWh annually and decrease carbon dioxide emissions by 8.8 million pounds per year. According to figures from the EPA, this is equivalent to removing more than 780 cars from the road.


New pumps and pipes

During their energy audit, Honeywell identified many pumps throughout the system that were below acceptable efficiency levels.

“If the pumps are working, beyond routine maintenance, you tend to overlook them,” Robertson says. “Honeywell pointed out how much electricity we could save by upgrading those pumps.”

Dave Robinson of Honeywell Building Solutions, explains, “Those old pumps were meant to meet certain demand levels, but were often under-utilized. The way the electric rate structure was set up, this was costing [the utility] money.

“In most cases we recommended smaller pumps. Of course, these newer pumps were intrinsically more efficient. We also found and remedied some plumbing issues, like too many elbows, that were creating enough backpressure to affect pump efficiency. Our design team takes a very holistic approach on these system upgrades.”

Older pipes have also been targeted for replacement. WVWA had 20 miles of 1950s-era 12-inch cast iron pipe in their system. Breaks often caused road breaches. Since their formation, the WVWA has had a five-year capital improvement program to identify and replace that pipe, mostly with ductile iron. With an annual budget of $3.5 million allocated to refurbishing the distribution system, 3.2 miles of old pipe have already been replaced.


Reservoir management

Despite having experienced several recent drought years, the four WVWA reservoirs remain at capacity. With a total of over 10 billion gallons stored, they could meet their average daily demand of 23 mgd for over 400 days.

Even with some excess capacity, WVWA is looking forward to ensuring an adequate water supply for customers. Adding Smith Mountain Lake to their reservoir system is one possibility. Their Contingency Reserve Fund, which is being built over a 10-year period to a level of $5 million, and their Construction Reserve Fund, with a target level of 10 to 12 percent of operating expenses, will provide funding for future interconnects.


The big picture

The authority’s efforts to improve their product quality have been rewarded with the Virginia Department of Health Excellence in Fluoridation award, the Excellence in Waterworks Operation award and the National Association of Clean Water Agencies Gold Operation award.

WVWA takes a proactive approach to educating its customers, and sends teams to local K-12 schools and colleges.

“People want to understand more about where their water comes from, where it goes, and how it’s treated,” says environmental communications coordinator Sarah Baumgardner. “Plus, in the schools, we have an opportunity to attract students into our business. Our workforce is graying, so we’ll need to attract new people. We have an internship program for high school and college students, and they can earn credits working during summer vacation and other breaks. Some of those students end up working for us.”

Robertson notes that when the water authority was formed, they took a hard look at where they were and where they wanted to be. “It was clear what we had to do. When the Honeywell audit showed us how much we could save each year, we realized that money could help pay for the upgrades.

“Once the decision was made, our board of directors got behind the program and helped make it happen. All seven directors are business people here in Virginia, and they immediately saw the potential economic benefits. They understand this business.”

Altizer calls it a “wow” project. “It’s an amazing example of what can be done when you’re willing to engage the newest technology and make the right choices,” he says.

From the start, WVWA’s motto has been “I am the water authority.” That core value was created by the original employees of WVWA. “The customer doesn’t interact with the entire company, so whoever you are, you represent WVWA,” Baumgardner says. “We need to make sure that’s a positive experience. I think we’re doing that.”


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