Reach for the sky

Although fraud is one factor, most losses experienced by utilities are utility management issues and can therefore be reduced. This was the view taken by the Donegal County Council Water Board in Ireland. Estimates suggest that approximately 40% of treated water in Ireland is lost during distribution - a problem replicated in many other countries. In 2000, a joint project between the Water Board and Andronics, a company specialising in global data communications, was set up to develop a satellite-based system to monitor and control remote assets. The project is now known as MC2000.

BACKGROUND

Water utilities in Europe are under regulatory pressure following an EEC Directive & Guidelines, issued in 2000, setting efficiency standards for water processing and distribution.

In rural areas in Ireland water is supplied from reservoirs, where each reservoir serves up to 100 homes. The reservoirs are situated in remote locations, creating inefficiencies and asset management problems for utilities. The pump located in the pump house is often controlled by a time clock, which operates the pump on a cyclical basis until the ball valve in the reservoir closes and a specified high-pressure level is reached. This means that the pump operates mainly during the day, when electricity is most expensive, and at times the water level is too low.

As Hugh Doherty, senior supervisor at Donegal County Council Water Board, explains: “We were faced with the dilemma of accurately measuring water depth data in the reservoir, and processing flow-rate during treatment and supply processes at remote locations. With the added difficulties of no communication between local reservoir and pump, no electricity supply, and with radio and GSM communications providing inadequate coverage, we decided to opt for Andronics solutions to solve our problems.”

HOW THE SYSTEM WORKS

Andronics uses the ORBCOMM constellation of 35 Low-Earth Orbit (LEO) satellites for global, low-cost data communication with fixed and mobile assets. The company has developed applications for remote monitoring, wind farm monitoring, automated meter reading, vehicle/marine tracking, and global text messaging. 

ORBCOMM satellites offer two-way communication, allowing the Water Board to send control commands. This means that the pumps can be switched on and off remotely as required, as well as at predetermined intervals. The first trial began at the Coolcross reservoir site.

At the reservoir, a level sensor and float switch (back-up) was installed, and interfaced to an Andronics communicator with antenna. Because there was no power supply to the site, a solar panel was installed, with a rechargeable battery for back-up. At the pump house, situated two miles from the reservoir, another Andronics communicator with antenna was installed, and interfaced to monitor the flow meter and control the pump.

When the water level reaches the minimum level registered on the level sensor, a ‘pump on' signal is automatically transmitted from the communicator to a LEO satellite, then through the ground infrastructure to Andronics, where it is recorded on the utility's web interface. A signal is then sent from the web site through Andronics and the ground infrastructure to a LEO satellite, and is transmitted to the communicator at the pump house, where the pump is turned on. When the level of water in the reservoir reaches the maximum level specified by the water utility, a ‘pump off' signal is generated and transmitted in exactly the same way. The communicator is programmed only to send a ‘pump on' signal at night unless the float switch is triggered. This ensures further cost savings by using electricity during off-peak hours, unless it becomes necessary to switch on during the day.

The project resulted in several advantages to the utility.

  • More efficient use of water resource.
  • Reduction in electricity used.
  • Reservoir supplied more efficiently.
  • Elimination of routine physical monitoring.
  • Provision of accurate, historical data, leading to better management decisions.

WATER TREATMENT PLANT

A second project was begun at the Redcastle water treatment plant, to monitor and control water flow into the plant and at various stages of the treatment process; reservoir levels; chlorine levels; pump status and alarm signals. A Panasonic communicator with antenna was installed at the treatment plant and interfaced to the various sensors and pumps.

The utility specifically asked for automatic notification of alarm reports, so a phase failure and common trip alarm were provided for the pumps, which were directed to an alarm panel on the treatment plant's monitoring equipment. Alarm notification was incorporated into the web interface, so that an alarm screen would flash to alert the user. In addition, the alarm reports are also routed to specified personal pagers. Donegal Council was also offered a 24-hour monitoring service.

The benefits to the utility are:

  • Elimination of routine physical supervision at the treatment plant.
  • Monitoring of operations via the Internet.
  • Improved efficiency of operations.
  • Visual displays of treatment plants for more convenient access to detailed information.

Donegal's water division realised the potential for impressive savings and a reduction in water and electricity use. Hugh Doherty comments: “MC2000 is satellite based, and can be installed in any location. We receive critical information frequently, arriving at desktop PCs via the Internet, which lowers our operating costs.” 

INTERNET BASED

MC2000 is Internet based. By accessing www.andronics.co.uk/dococo, the utility can access information in visual display, chart or table format. Web development engineers at Andronics worked with Donegal County Council to ensure that the information was displayed in user- friendly formats. With the advances in WAP technology, Andronics is developing MC2000 to give utilities access to control functions using their mobile phones. 

André Halley, ORBCOMM's executive vice president of global marketing and distribution, says: “This is a highly functional, cost-effective telemetry and control system that will keep reservoir operators and water treatment plant managers in touch with their remote assets throughout the Donegal region.”

FURTHER APPLICATIONS

The success of the initial project has led to solutions being developed to monitor and control reservoirs, water filtration plants, water treatment plants, sewage treatment plants and pumping stations. Andronics is now involved in some ongoing developments with the Water Board to interface MC2000 with an existing radio system, and to integrate MC2000 with the Council's back-end software. Further installations are ongoing throughout County Donegal.

Hugh Doherty concludes: “The results of the trial demonstrated clearly that MC2000 enables effective management of resources within remote areas, the accurate measurement, monitoring, and control of water within the reservoir and treatment processes, and bi-directional communication.”