Proactive Program Anticipates and Preempts Utility's Problems

Georgia utility builds efficiency through system upgrades and customer engagement.

Proactive Program Anticipates and Preempts Utility's Problems

Roswell Water Utility crew leader Casey Schoals flushes a hydrant. (Photography by Kaylinn Gilstrap)

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It was the presence of a swift-moving stream that led to the founding of Roswell, Georgia, and its earliest infrastructure — a cotton mill. Big Creek, as the stream is known today, is still a critical piece of the city’s natural infrastructure.

The Roswell Water Utility is responsible for providing water to 20% of the fast-growing city of 100,000 in the Atlanta metro area. Despite the fact that some of its waterlines date to the 1930s, the utility is regularly singled out by industry peers as a progressive, efficient system. Some credit for this performance surely must be attributed to the water utility manager, Chris Boyd.

Though Boyd has managed the utility for just four years, he was water distribution superintendent for 10 years before that. On his watch, the utility earned distribution awards in 2006, 2011, 2014, 2018 and 2019, all from the Georgia Section of the American Water Works Association. In 2009, a local and state water partnership named WaterFirst also cited the utility’s excellent stewardship.

“I have a great team,” Boyd says about the peer recognition of his department.

Reducing usage

Most Georgia counties were placed under a Level 1 drought declaration in October that persisted into December. Consequently, Roswell is closely monitoring water use to comply with the state’s outdoor watering restrictions. It’s also offering customers commonsense conservation tips such as putting up a rain gauge to track rainfall before opting to turn on a sprinkler.

However, the utility’s conservation program is more than just passively responding to Mother Nature. Its programs anticipate problems and try to preempt them. This includes changing customer billing to monthly from bimonthly. Thirty-day billing gives the utility timelier looks at water usage so it can red-flag higher-than-usual consumption and investigate possible water loss. “With monthly billing, we are able to get to a leak a lot sooner,” Boyd says.

That and other proactive programs such as the city’s low-flow toilet rebate program have reduced total water usage by 40% over the last dozen years. “In 2006, the gallons per capita per day figure was 122. In 2018, it was 72,” Boyd says. “In 2018, we had an outside company survey our entire water system for leaks, and they only found seven leaks on service lines. The system was declared to be ‘tight.’”

When water system failures invariably do occur, the department has promised to respond within two hours. An investigator is sent to a location to determine where a pipe is leaking. If the broken line is on the city side, a crew is immediately sent to repair it. If it’s leaking on the customer’s property, a plumber is called.

That’s all pretty pro forma. The utility’s warning system is more innovative. It is called AquaHawk Alerting and lets customers actively monitor water usage. Once customers register for the service, they can go online and track water use. They can also sign up for alerts automatically sent via text, phone call or email. The alerts are triggered whenever an account seems likely to consume more water or to run up a higher bill than stipulated by the customer.

The alerting system is a fruit of the city’s decision in 2011 to acquire Sensus FlexNet automated metering infrastructure. “It has been very effective,” Boyd says. “We were the second or third water utility in Georgia to implement the customer portal alert system. We are certainly ahead of the national average in the number of customers signing up for the service.”

Still, only about one-third of Roswell Water Utility’s customers have opted for AquaHawk alerts. The number is increasing, however, partly by word-of-mouth endorsements from satisfied customers. “It’s been hard to get people to sign up for it, but those who have, love it. They’re advertising AquaHawk to their neighbors.”

Meeting demand

Roswell is a suburban bedroom community for Atlanta commuters. Consequently, 83% of the water utility’s customers are residential and less than 10% commercial. Five percent of customers buy the water solely for irrigation.

To meet demand, the utility principally draws raw water from Big Creek, which has been a source for 80 years. Fulton County is a backup source with water drawn from the Chattahoochee River. The third Roswell water supply is a deep well drilled in 2012. Water flowing through the utility’s lines on any given day is a mix of these sources.

The mix changes most dramatically during dry spells when the flow of Big Creek diminishes to a point below that permitted by the state Environmental Protection Division. When that occurs, Roswell Water Utility must supplement its supply from the well. In the event that isn’t sufficient, the utility can tap any of its six interconnections with the adjacent Fulton County system.

“It’s been awhile since we weren’t able to pull water from the creek,” says Jessie James Cash, the utility’s treatment plant operations manager.  

>span class="s3">can’t draw from Big Creek, it’s costly. According to the utility’s master plan, for example, the utility had to buy 20 million gallons from the Fulton County system during a drought in 2016. At that time, treating its own water cost $1.70 per thousand gallons. Buying it from Fulton County cost $2.23 per thousand.

Another cost-saving decision: The utility constructed a new water treatment plant in 2016, replacing an 80-year-old facility that could only produce 1.5 mgd, which is about equal to average daily consumption over the course of a year. When the old plant couldn’t turn out quite enough water, the utility had to tap the county system.

The state-of-the-art plant, which has won four consecutive American Water Works Association awards for efficiency, can produce 3.3 mgd, a comfortable surplus. As a result, since the new plant came online, less than 2% of water distributed to customers has come from the county. That’s a significant savings considering the system pumps out about 500 million gallons a year.

“We have the capacity in our treatment plant to meet demand for the next 20 years,” Boyd says, noting that they still need to get more groundwater into the system as part of the drought tolerance plan when the Big Creek flow drops too low. “If we can do that, we can become more self-reliant and have more redundancy, and purchasing water from Fulton County becomes a last resort.” A second deep-well site is being scouted.

The system has raw water storage of 10 million gallons. That sounds like a lot but is equivalent to just three to five days of normal customer demand. In addition, the plant has a 375,000-gallon finished water storage facility and three water towers holding more than a million gallons.

Replacing pipes

Getting all that water to homes and businesses is the mission, of course, and maintaining the system’s lines poses some challenges. For one thing, some of the pipe has been in the ground for far longer than its normal life expectancy. Half of the distribution pipes are ductile iron, about a third are cast iron, 7% are galvanized steel and less than 3% are asbestos concrete. Getting rid of the latter has been a longtime priority for obvious reasons.

The other main focus of replacement work is the galvanized steel pipe, which has become increasingly problematic, according to Boyd. The 2-inch pipes are mostly in residential cul-de-sacs and tuberculation has begun to restrict flow. Almost as bad, iron oxide is discoloring the water. The pipes will be replaced with HDPE. Another focus of pipe replacement is 8-inch ductile iron pipe, particularly alongside streets being rebuilt.

Boyd doesn’t have a so-many-feet-per-year replacement schedule for aging lines. Rather he uses a matrix of considerations about flow, leaks, water quality, economic development and so on to identify priority stretches of pipeline. “I take all these into account and score it and focus on priority areas. How many feet of new pipe we do in a year varies a lot. I don’t try to do a certain linear amount every year.”

If spending for capital improvements remains where it has been for some time — about $500,000 a year — the system has a 35-year backlog of replacement work ahead of it. The prospect of replacing so much aging 6- to 16-inch pipe doesn’t seem to faze Boyd. “That’s the plan,” he says.

Pipe replacement is always subcontracted, and it’s usually open-trench work. “We haven’t used any trenchless technology so far,” Boyd says. “We might do some in the future. If we have to lay a lot of pipe in an area where there are a lot of commercial customers, we might use it.”

So, the earth-moving machinery in the utility’s equipment yard is exclusively for emergency repairs and routine service tasks. Digging equipment includes an 85 hp JCB 350 CX ECO backhoe, a Case TV380 compact track loader and two mini-excavators — a 28 hp Takeuchi and 66 hp Case. A trailered Vac-Tron LPD873 XDT vacuum excavator can be pulled into place for work in sensitive areas.

Moving forward

On a scale of 1 to 10, Boyd rates the system and its administration a 7 or 8 right now. “For the most part, customers are happy with service. We get compliments based on our service.”

Still, there’s no resting on laurels. The utility is systematically replacing any of its 5,500 water meters that are 15 or more years old, even though testing indicates many of the aging meters are still measuring water flow accurately. Faulty calibration translates into wasted water, so the meter upgrade is about conservation as well as proper billing.

Boyd also wants to move from a single pressure zone system in which the treatment plant pump is providing all the pressure to one with multiple pressure zones. Creating several zones gives system techs the ability to more closely monitor individual stretches of pipe for leaks.

“We’re always looking at new and innovative ways to optimize systems and make our operation more efficient,” he says. “We’re continuously working on that.”


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