Hi-tech help to drive the savings

Water companies are under pressure to perform more efficiently. Andrew Reeks explains how automation technology can optimise a company's performance

Every business is under pressure to perform as efficiently as possible. The water industry is no exception. Regulatory and shareholder scrutiny, as well as increasing consumer demands on the back of the predicted future opening up of a competitive water market, all add to the need to ensure the performance of water companies is truly optimised.

Cost considerations sit at the heart of this and with the general acceptance that all water companies are looking to make up to 20% savings in their operational costs, it is time to see where such savings can be delivered.

My view is that automation technology can play a central role in making such reductions a reality across three of the prime areas of everyday cost for the industry: energy consumption, chemical procurement and labour use. While in each area utilisation of technology will bring with it tangible savings, it is when you stand back, assess the bigger picture and link the cumulative technology benefits together that it can start to make a real difference.

So what are some of the key areas where adoption of technology can help eat into the savings targets?

Starting with labour, it is well known that the system performance at outlying unmanned pumping stations can be put under great strain, particularly in extreme weather or storm conditions.

Traditionally, engineers are used to visiting such stations to ascertain if the pumps are degraded or had, indeed, stopped functioning altogether after problematic weather patterns. The installation of flow meters at the pumping station, which are then linked back to a SCADA system, can provide immediate feedback and data concerning the daily performance of the pump station, including whether there had been deterioration in the condition of the pumps.

A quick and accessible picture is then to hand via the monitoring data supplied by the flow meter technology. This is especially true to support efforts to instil a proactive and predictive maintenance strategy, with feedback from sensors in the field used to provide condition based monitoring and improve operational efficiencies.

If a clearer and faster picture is obtained at the network centre, it will start to enable a better use of what can be expensive labour resources. With the cost of sending an engineer to an outlying station to check out weekly maintenance requirements – or see if the pump is actually working – set at approximately £180 per visit, then multiply this figure by the many hundreds or thousands of visits taking place each year, and it is clear that substantial labour savings could be achieved through the simple implementation of intelligent flow meter instrumentation in outlying areas of the network such as unmanned pumping stations.

This issue is set to become even more pertinent following the transfer of private sewers and private lateral drains to the water companies under the new Sewers for Adoption 7 initiative. This significantly added to existing water company networks, with some, such as Anglian Water and South West Water, estimating an addition of 50% to their sewerage infrastructure. With a larger network comes additional responsibility. The example of the flow meter at outlying stations providing essential monitoring data alleviates the need to deploy regular engineer visits unless absolutely necessary. It could make a real dent in yearly operating costs.

Turning to energy as a significant contributor to operational overheads for water companies, it is accepted that everyone is more than aware of the need to conserve energy and many water companies have indeed taken steps to instigate energy management programmes. However, the true value that can be gained through technology adoption is the innate understanding it can bring concerning the parts of the process on the network that consume energy.

With energy prices predicted to rise by up to 50% over the next few years, it is vital that a holistic approach to energy management becomes part of the fabric of high energy users such as the water industry. By first analysing where consumption is occurring and to what degree, management decisions can then be made to address where savings could be achieved.

Most companies could save 20-30% of their energy consumption using measures that pay back within three years. Intelligence-led control systems provide a clear energy picture across the process, including the energy levels consumed by different elements

A lot of work has been done to address energy usage, such as the implementation of variable speed drives at water plants and higher efficiency motors on pumps. They are delivering immediate and substantial energy savings.

The important point is to ensure the processes that are being controlled are also constantly reviewed. In areas of high energy use such as aeration filtration processing, while the variable speed drive and motor may be optimised, it is also important to consider if the process is running inefficiently?

Excess energy volumes maybe being consumed to control the process and regular reviews and predictive maintenance strategies can help optimise overall energy consumption levels.

In addition, plant managers should ask if all the parameters which could be measured and monitored are being done so. This could include the process measurements for dissolved oxygen, air flows along with the pump data, running currents, the efficiency of the blowers and running hours to name but a few. If such date is then presented on one SCADA screen, the operator can make an immediate decision about energy use and, ultimately, help energy address overall costs.

Monitoring, measuring and optimising energy use from an integrated standpoint using control technology can help operators understand and unlock the potential for major energy cost savings right across the treatment works.

Another significant cost area for water companies is that of chemicals used in the treatment and supply process. Dosing takes place across the network, but again having a clearer and more accurate understanding of the network’s performance can help control the actual levels of dosing required and by association, optimise expenditure.

Measurements taken out in the field and then fed back to the overall control system can help determine accurate requirements of dosing, as opposed to a more generalist approach. Small percentage savings in the levels of chemical used can have a big impact on the chemical purchase bill. The link to enable this to happen is the technology that places the performance and consumption data from out in the network back into the hands of the central control operators.

Achieving significant cost savings is no easy task and the water industry faces real challenges as it prepares for the future.

However, by closely examining key operational areas such as labour costs, energy consumption and chemical procurement, and utilising the integrated benefits that technology can deliver in terms of a holistic and accurate view of processes and performance in such areas, then great inroads can be made towards daily operational cost savings.

The secret lies in adopting a joined-up strategy to automated control technology, not a piecemeal, ad-hoc and isolated one. Setting up internal objective setting workshops for operational personnel and engineering disciplines and true partnering with strategic and knowledgeable supply partners for a collaborative approach to finding the solutions, can be the first step in focusing upon attainable goals and highlighting the subsequent role automation control technology can play.

The optimisation of water plants, pumping stations and the networks through an integrated approach can actively drive efficiencies. Doing so can play a pivotal role in helping water companies hit the challenging 20% operational cost savings they seek.

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