Reliable Risk Mitigation

Utilities can harness the power of data and analytics to prioritize infrastructure investment.

Reliable Risk Mitigation

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Utility managers across the United States are tasked with making their systems more resilient to deal with climate change and aging infrastructure while also addressing emerging threats and evolving environmental regulations. At the same time, they’re making decisions to keep services affordable while working to widen access and bridge the gap caused by historical inequalities.

It can be difficult to strike the right balance, particularly for resource-strapped utilities. Faced with so many immediate challenges, it would be easy to assume that incident management and emergency response planning happens in a vacuum. While utilities may have adopted this reactive approach to risk mitigation in the past, the innovative utilities of today are leaning into the potential of digital solutions to take a more pragmatic approach.

Intelligent asset management solutions that harness the power of data and analytics are empowering utilities across the country to achieve greater operational resiliency. Digital solutions capable of producing predictive outcomes offer enhanced system visibility, allowing utilities to make critical decisions faster. Not only does this approach optimize operations in practical ways, but it also supports proactive emergency planning, enabling utilities to adequately plan for tomorrow while freeing up much needed resources to reinvest in other areas of their operation today.

Permanent assets

Building utility resilience starts with getting a handle on the current picture. Historically, buried pipelines were forgotten about until a failure occurred. In dealing with millions of miles of aging infrastructure, the default solution was to replace sections of pipeline after the fact — a costly and resource-intensive remedy often leading to poorly targeted upgrade programs. A 2010 study by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimated that 70 to 90% of pipes replaced had significant remaining useful life. However, today’s utilities are no longer managing critical assets solely on age. Increased network visibility allows utility operators to understand what assets they have, their location and specification, and crucially, their condition.

Solutions like advanced sensing and condition assessment tools are helping utilities identify structural weaknesses, allowing them to continuously monitor buried assets. By distilling the resulting data into actionable insights, utilities now have the information they need to better plan rehabilitation and renewal of their assets. As a result, buried infrastructure is no longer viewed as a disposable, run-to-failure asset, but rather a permanent one capable of rehabilitation and restoration.

By determining the remaining useful life of buried infrastructure, utilities can also plan for capital improvements and determine if their current asset management plan is adequately preparing them for the future. Ultimately, this approach is empowering utilities to accomplish more within their existing budgets.

Cause of failure

Take the Middlesex County Utilities Authority in New Jersey, for example. As an early adopter of integrating emerging technologies and digital solutions in the management of their critical force main, the utility provides wastewater treatment services for industrial, commercial and residential users in Middlesex County as well as several municipalities in Union and Somerset counties. With five pumping stations and nearly 60 miles of sewer lines, the utility delivers 100 million gallons of wastewater to the Edward J. Patten Water Reclamation Center in Sayreville each day.

Like many proactive utilities, MCUA sought to implement a solution that would not only prevent pipeline failures but allow the utility to predict when a failure might be likely to occur. Working with the team at Pure Technologies, a Xylem brand, the utility carried out a series of in-depth tests using advanced sensing tools. This included electromagnetic and acoustic monitoring inspections to evaluate the health of the pipeline.

The evaluation determined that the root cause of a failure on the 102-inch PCCP Sayreville Relief Force Main that had happened in the early 2000s was environmental degradation of the pipe’s mortar coating and prestressing wire. From there, MCUA and Xylem worked together to implement a proactive condition assessment and monitoring program to mitigate the potential of any additional failures on this critical force main.

Using acoustic fiber optic technology, the utility began continuous monitoring of its pipeline to identify critical pipeline issues and wire vulnerabilities in real-time, representing a first-of-its kind approach for wastewater systems.

Intelligent asset management in action

In 2013, the AFO program was upgraded to include a new fiber optic cable that was hard wired to a data acquisition device. The upgrade greatly improved the identification of high-risk locations as each sensor was essentially within one pipe diameter of a wire break. This data, when combined with ongoing monitoring to determine structural limitations, allows the utility to identify the probability of failure and engage in proactive pipeline repairs to mitigate future risks.

The power of this holistic approach is that the MCUA now has a bank of system data dating back nearly 20 years. This information allows the utility to plan for its capital improvements and gauge whether their current management plan is preparing them for the future. Should degradation rates change, the program can be modified with new parameters to accurately predict the remaining useful life of each pipe segment.

Additionally, predictive modeling tools can forecast just how many pipes may require repairs in the future. According to a 2019 RUL analysis carried out on the Sayreville Relief Force Main, projections indicate that 43 pipe segments have a 40% probability of exceeding their yield limit by the year 2040. At current wire break rates, only 17 pipe segments are expected to reach their yield limit by the year 2040.

As a result of the program, the MCUA can now rehabilitate and manage the pipeline on a yearly cost-effective scale.

Digital differentiator

As utilities across the United States continue to implement digital solutions, more data is unlocked and new ground is broken. By harnessing the potential of data and analytics, buried infrastructure is no longer an invisible asset. Instead, utilities are utilizing actionable insights to prioritize investment where it is needed most. Not only does this help make critical infrastructure more reliable, but it also reduces operating costs — savings that can ultimately be passed on to the community.

The opportunities are endless and the potential is transformative, particularly in the context of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law and the renewed focus on building longer-term resiliency. The appropriation of funds over a five-year period facilitates more strategic planning, allowing water managers to be more pragmatic in their approach to critical asset management.


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