Municipalities’ Modern Superhero: SCADA Systems on the Silver Screen

In Hollywood, art can imitate life, except with bigger budgets and more exciting plot lines. A common movie trope is when a villain threatens to contaminate a town’s water supply, putting thousands of citizens’ health and lives in jeopardy. Luckily, the hero manages to foil the plan in the nick of time. Today, the hero is modern water management technology, like satellite-based SCADA systems, which can easily prevent similar stories from developing. While it might not make for exciting movies, satellite-based SCADA systems provide the protection required for modern utility infrastructure, in a scalable and affordable way. Check out these examples of where a SCADA system would have saved the day. [Spoilers ahead]

In Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins, the Scarecrow gleefully reveals that he and his henchmen have been contaminating Gotham’s water supply with a powerful hallucinogen through a busted water main. If Gotham’s Public Works department had installed a satellite-based SCADA system, the water utility manager would have been alerted immediately of the equipment breach. The recorded data that the utility manager can access from anywhere would also show the inaccurate chemical levels of the water supply. A satellite-based SCADA system would have exposed the issue and foiled the plan before any damage was done. And for once, Batman could have taken a vacation.

In the 2000 film Erin Brockovich, Julia Roberts stars as the title character who investigates the Pacific Gas & Electric Company after hundreds of residents suffer from cancer and other illnesses. The story is based on the true tale of Brockovich and her attorney boss Edward Masly discovering that the company had been neglectfully polluting the water supply of Hinkley, California, with harmful toxins.

Much of Brockovich’s time is spent driving hundreds of miles to water plants, digging through old and outdated records, and researching data from the PG&E company, some of which is destroyed or slated for destruction. With today’s technology and legislative safeguards against this kind of blatant environmental disregard, a monitoring system like SCADA makes the data about chemical levels readily available. Furthermore, Brockovich (or anyone!) wouldn’t have to drive hundreds of miles to dig up old documents but instead have instant remote access.

The “contaminated water supply” trope is especially convenient for Hollywood’s zombie movies. George A. Romero’s 1973 film The Crazies plays up fears of a crazy-making virus spread through unfiltered drinking water. Apologies to zombie enthusiasts but proper management and monitoring of the water supply via a satellite-based SCADA system would alert the utility department to unsafe levels for drinking water immediately. And if zombification were a real concern, the utility services manager could easily send the satellite-based data to the Center for Disease Control, ensuring that the walking dead remain just interesting entertainment.

All fun aside, the municipalities dedicated to modernizing the utility services and systems with the latest and best technology are the reason residents can trust their water supplies. Being able to record, monitor, transmit and analyze data across entire utility services makes the public works departments the unsung heroes of modern municipalities.

Improving on a Good Idea: How Satellite-Based SCADA Enhanced In-Place Solutions

Florida—land of surf, sand, sun, and… septic tanks? Aging septic tanks (which include over 2.6 million homes) is a growing concern for Florida residents because the outdated systems can leak nitrogen and other contaminants into the groundwater. In 2010, the Florida legislature passed a law requiring inspections for septic tanks every five years—an edict that forces smaller utility providers, like Hillsborough County in eastern Florida, to find creative ways to modernize their systems while staying on budget.

Centered on the Tampa-St. Petersburg-Clearwater metropolitan area, Hillsborough County is the fourth most populous county in Florida, with more than 1.3 million residents calling it home. Managing their water, wastewater, and sewage system is the Hillsborough County Public Utilities Department. In 1979, the Public Utilities Department was ahead of the curve and adopted a plan to reduce potential health hazards from septic tanks in two of its residential areas: Ruskin and Wimauma. Working with USEPA grants, the Utility has been gradually replacing septic tanks with a low-pressure sewer system (LPSS). Three decades after its initial push, the utility is nearing its goal to provide a safe LPSS for residents in all neighborhoods.

While the LPSS initiative did bring needed service upgrades to the residential areas, the number of sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) also increased due to heavy rains and floods. Combined with outdated or inadequate communication and data retrieval systems, the good idea was quickly getting bogged down with bigger problems.

So when the Utility needed to find a cost-effective, efficient way to gather current and historical information, as well as to note trends, they decided to go with a SCADA system. The first pilot program did not deliver as expected and the Utility had to reassess their parameters. The second attempt proved to be the winning combination because it was affordable and high quality, factored in public safety, and included features designed for specific environmental concerns, like aging septic systems.

High Tide Technologies offered Hillsborough County Utilities a satellite-based SCADA solution that provides the Utility with wireless monitoring of all assets, including remote ones, as well as desired alarm notifications. Utility workers are alerted via text, phone, or pager to any issues, and personnel has instant access to the recorded data from individual grinder pumps. The solution also provides a mapping feature that can guide utility personnel to units in stress or alarm. Satellite-based SCADA solutions are scalable and fit easily within most utility budgets while reducing man hours, modernizing older systems, protecting equipment, and managing operations.

In one fell swoop, the Hillsborough County Public Utilities Department had the right tools to continue to build on their great idea of proactively addressing aging septic tanks. By using a satellite-based SCADA, the Utility can scale as needed and always be ahead of the curve for any potentially damaging or dangerous problems. And residents of Hillsborough County can focus on the surf, sand, and sun… instead of leaking septic tanks.

How SCADA Systems Help Water Treatment and Wastewater Plants

The beauty of modern plumbing is that when we turn on our faucet, we can reasonably expect clean water to come pouring out. There are few places left in the country that are untouched by the advancements and regulations of public water. So when The Washington Post published an article in 2016 about researchers finding unsafe levels of industrial chemicals in the drinking water of 6 million Americans, waste water treatment plants and water management services took notice.

The report cited in the Post article found that “194 of 4,864 water supplies across nearly three dozen states had detectable levels of the chemicals.” Of those water supplies, 66 services had at least one sample that exceeded the EPA’s recommended safety limit for two types of chemicals. That ratio might not seem like a high number, but 66 water services affect six million Americans, so it’s clearly not a small issue.

Water treatment plants and water usage facilities can do their part by making sure their monitoring equipment is up-to-date and as accurate as possible. While SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) systems are more commonplace in modern operations, an updated version exists and is proving to a more reliable and better solution: a cloud-based SCADA system.

A cloud-based SCADA system allows water management plants to not only monitor levels of specific chemicals and toxins, but to have precise records accessible from anywhere. No longer are digital read-outs only available at a fixed point on the SCADA unit. Instead, any manager or operator who needs data can access it from their own satellite- or WIFI-enabled device.

In the contaminated water study, the EPA sought to mitigate the ramifications until stricter guidelines could be drawn up. When it comes to healthy drinking water, Americans don’t want to waste time in the bureaucratic process of defining regulations.

Unfortunately, Congress mandates that before the EPA imposes new limitations on the nation’s water utilities, it has to prove that there is a meaningful opportunity to improve public health. It is a long, arduous process that takes years; officials have not successfully regulated any new contaminant in two decades because the process is complicated and contentious.

Another benefit of a cloud-based SCADA system is that data collected in real-time from the contaminated areas can be studied, compared, and shared with researchers in a faster, more efficient, digital manner. By comparing the data points, researchers can have the most accurate knowledge from which to draw, and that hopefully can lead to quicker results and faster action.
Because of our industrial advancements, the environment is changing faster than we can understand. However, because of our technological advancements, we can use the digital tools available, like a cloud-based SCADA solution, to monitor, record, and support research for improvements.

Searching for Solution Providers: What to Look For and What to Avoid

As the saying goes, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” But with technology developing at a break-neck speed and the benefits of efficient, accurate data so integral to planning, staffing, and budgeting, not to mention crisis aversion, municipalities can’t afford to ignore the latest offerings for utility management solutions. Whether you’re in the research phase or ready to implement a better system today, knowing what to look for and what to avoid when evaluating SCADA monitoring systems is the first step to making a good decision.

AVOID: HIDDEN COSTS

Unpredicatable things happen every day. And when extenuating circumstances necessitate an emergency situation, the cost of the crisis itself, plus the sting of steep fine-print fees, is a one-two punch most budgets can’t afford to take. Ask early and often about initial costs, maintenance costs, and support costs. Any provider that balks is probably not worth your time.

LOOK FOR: COST TRANSPARENCY

When it comes to implementing a new system, there are always going to be certain fees that are upfront and one-time, such as equipment and set-up. Other fees may be recurring and as-needed, such as maintenance and support. Make sure that when evaluating SCADA solutions, providers are forthcoming and transparent about what their solution will cost at the outset, when something goes wrong, and for upkeep. Transparency is everything.

AVOID: ONE SIZE FITS ALL

Telemetry for utility management is a large category, allowing for many areas of distinct approaches, methods, and equipment. Any company or solution provider that claims to have the one and only solution or equipment cannot guarantee it’ll work with your utility parameters, like size, distance, budget, or personnel.

LOOK FOR: CUSTOMIZABLE SOLUTIONS

A reliable SCADA solution provider knows that each project presents its own unique needs and challenges and works to find the best solution that fits the project. Additionally, a cloud-based SCADA provider should have the equipment and telemetry technology available that will scale and grow as needed. Having a wide range of options allows for the most tailored solutions.

AVOID: CONSTANTLY TROUBLESHOOTING ISSUES

When evaluating SCADA solution providers, it’s important to trust that your business has the support when it’s needed. Being up a creek without a paddle is the last place you want to find yourself when something urgent needs attention. And spending hours in a call center circle of doom probably isn’t what you paid for, is it?

LOOK FOR: FULL COVERAGE AND SUPPORT

A good SCADA provider is your paddle, and your life jacket, and the Coast Guard… if you need it to be. Implementing a new SCADA solution is an investment of time, energy, personnel, and money. Look for a SCADA provider that feels like an extension of your own team, with the same goals and objectives, then you’ll have a win-win.

Small Towns Solving Big Water Management Problems

Forty-five miles west of Knoxville and nestled in the Tennessee Valley is Harriman, TN, a scenic small town of 6,218 in 10.6 square miles. Because time and technology wait for no man, Harriman found itself looking for big innovations for their small town water management needs.
Providing electric, gas, water, and sewer services to the city and the surrounding area is the Harriman Utility Board (HUB). Due to necessity, HUB has absorbed smaller water service providers throughout the years and integrated them into its system, creating a patchwork of different systems, processes, and technologies for monitoring.
This hodge-podge of systems led to a serviceable but clunky workflow:

  • Personnel received monitoring data via one computer in the warehouse, creating gaps in efficiency and opening the door to inaccurate readings.
  • Operators in the field didn’t have direct access to the data, and had to rely on relayed information or, more commonly, the past experiences of engineers and operators. More time was spent trying to pinpoint what or where the problem could be instead of actually addressing the issue.
  • Many of the remote locations lacked telemetry—the wired or wireless transmission and reception of data to monitor equipment or conditions—and required onsite visits, which varied in frequency and consistency.

Add to it aging and outdated monitoring equipment and limited availability for replacement parts, and the case was clear: The time had come to upgrade the HUB water and utility management system.
Rural municipalities typically have small budgets that must be stretched to cover large geographic areas, limiting rural areas to low-cost and low-tech options, such as line-of-sight radio networks or phone lines. Because of growing cost of leases lines, and costly repeaters for hilly areas, soon enough, low-tech options no longer mean low cost. The HUB board had the same concerns when it set out to find a better, more efficient, more affordable solution.
Luckily, the right solution exists. The HUB board decided to install a small cloud-based SCADA system through us, allowing utility operators to access and control the systems from any Internet-connected device. The changes put an end to spotty landline connections, costly equipment, and distance issues. Additionally, the cloud-based SCADA provider carries the burden of licensing and maintaining SCADA software and hardware, which reduces the cost and development needs—and worries—for utility departments.
In the two years since its implementation of a cloud-based SCADA, the Harriman Utility Board has seen water loss reduced by 10 percent and a more accurate understanding of the way the system works. By having precise and timely data at their fingertips, operators and engineers can better predict and calibrate future issues.
Though rural municipalities like Harriman may be small, they still think big when it comes to effective water management. Finding the latest monitoring technology to meet their needs and their budget proved that a cloud-based SCADA system is the best fit for utilities of any size.
You can learn more about the Harriman solution by downloading the case study here.

Wired vs Wireless SCADA: The Future of Telemetry

Today’s new normal of constant monitoring and reporting via smartphones, apps, and mobile trackers is founded on the same science researchers, engineers, and municipalities have been using to keep our cities, industries, and infrastructure operating smoothly. It’s called telemetry, and it’s been quietly transmitting all digital data that makes the modern age possible, especially for infrastructure systems like water management and utility services.

What is telemetry?

Telemetry is the wired or wireless transmission and reception of data for the purpose of remotely monitoring conditions or equipment. The term is also used in reference to the signals containing such data. Telemetry is especially important for municipalities because the data transmitted can detect equipment and power failures, overflow avoidance, leak detection, tank level controls, water usage monitoring, tracking pump and valve performance, water loss tracking, and more. Early detection of any breach or risk means a quicker response and more control over the damage.
The software that pairs telemetry with utility services is called SCADA—supervisory control and data acquisition. SCADA gathers data in real time from remote locations in order to control equipment and conditions.

Choosing the best SCADA system: Type and Cost

Utility and water management departments must consider many factors when choosing the best SCADA solution, however the two key factors are usually type of SCADA and cost.

SCADA TYPES

There are five main types of SCADA that management systems can use, including wired, wireless, polled, report by exception, and hybrid versions. Today, we’ll focus on the difference between two options: wired (radio) versus wireless (satellite).
1. Wired/Radio — Usually located in a plant, uses Ethernet, dial-up phone lines and leased lines to remote sites, and used by landline phone dialers.
2. Wireless/Satellite — In-plant wireless networks like WiFi or Zigbee allows point-to-point radio networks with repeaters (licensed and unlicensed), relies on cellular networks (ATT, Verizon, Sprint, etc.), as well as satellite networks (Iridium, Orbcomm, Inmarset).

SCADA COSTS

Budget is usually one of the biggest concerns for a municipality. Decision-makers must factor in not just the initial cost of a solution, but also the price tag for maintenance and support. A wired system’s initial charge includes engineering costs, such as radio surveys and licenses, equipment cost per site, and installation costs, as well as the upkeep of physical units. Add in the overhead of individuals physically checking on the units and costs add up quickly.
By taking SCADA to a wireless or cloud-based system, important information is now available to users anywhere, with access to the Internet, at a much lower overall cost. Wireless is particularly beneficial in the field, where access to critical data is most valuable.
With the advancement of digital capabilities and the internet of things, the cloud-based SCADA solution is quickly outpacing and outperforming the wired approach. Plant managers also see that a satellite SCADA solution pays for itself with preventative maintenance cost savings. Now that the technology is available, it only makes sense to invest in the best solutions for utility services and water management.

SCADA Systems / Software for Cloud-Based SCADA

Imagine what your job would be like if you didn’t have to manually check the status of pump stations, tank targets or lift stations.

With cloud-based SCADA, all of your town’s water, wastewater and oil/gas services can be monitored with a click of a mouse or a swipe on your iPad. Not only does this save you time, it can also help prevent costly downtime of your equipment.

SCADA (supervisory control and data acquisition) is a category of a software application program for process control. Basically, it’s all about gathering data in real-time, from remote locations, in order to control equipment and conditions. The key component of cloud-based SCADA is that the data is not stored locally. The elimination of local servers and software saves money, and you won’t have to worry about data back-ups or data loss.

Here are a few questions our customers have asked us about cloud-based SCADA:

Who uses cloud-based SCADA?

Cloud-based SCADA is frequently used by: sewer lift stations, water tanks, valve stations, water plants, wastewater plants, raw water intake stations and natural gas odor injectors and regulators, to name just a few.

How does cloud-based SCADA help me do my job better?

Our 500+ customers have found that cloud-based SCADA helps them deal with power/equipment failures, overflow avoidance and leak detection. With cloud-based SCADA, you’ll be able to monitor and control tank levels, observe water usage and track pump and valve performance with web-based software.

How much does cloud-based SCADA cost?

The price of cloud-based SCADA can vary, depending on equipment size, maintenance, and annual support fees. However, it usually costs much less than traditional SCADA, eliminating the need for repeater towers, data management, and SCADA software fees.

Tell me a little more about what makes High Tide Technologies different than other cloud-based SCADA providers.

Our goal is to simplify everything for our customers. We offer easy-to-install hardware, web-based software, communications (satellite, cellular or Ethernet) and 24/7 customer service. That means you can develop a reliable cloud-based SCADA system one unit at a time. Each unit communicates with the cloud independently, so you don’t have to build out your infrastructure all at once.

Our system is able to monitor, control and send alerts by text, voicemail and email. We’re always here to support you with any questions or concerns.

I think cloud-based SCADA is the right thing for me. What questions should I ask a supplier before I sign-up?

We know you have many choices when it comes to SCADA suppliers. It can be overwhelming. Here are a few questions we think you should ask suppliers:

  • As a cloud-based SCADA supplier, how will you support us for the long-term?
  • What happens to our system if your business dissolves?
  • Will you be able to support our system remotely? And if so, will there be individual charges for that? If you’re a local supplier, do you have the in-house expertise to make repairs or changes?
  • Is there a fee for ongoing phone support and/or changes to the system?

Schedule a quick chat with us to see how a cloud-based SCADA solution will help you!

SCADA for Utilities – Water System SCADA

Today, the majority of Americans turn on their faucets, take showers or clean their dishes, without giving their water bill much thought.

Pretty soon, however, that might not be the case.

According to researchers at Michigan State University, water prices nationwide will need to increase by 41 percent over the next five years, to account for the increasing pressure of climate change and the costs of aging infrastructure. And that increase could leave up to a third of all US households unable to cover their water bills.

A historical perspective: After WWII, the US government spent a lot of money on building water distribution and collection infrastructure. In the 1970s, federal funding for water infrastructure was at 60 percent. Now? Just 9 percent. It’s no surprise that after 60 years, a lot of water pipes across America desperately need to be repaired or replaced.

Tracy Mehan, executive director of government affairs at American Water Works Association, has been advocating for more federal funding, but said in a recent Vox article that Americans can’t avoid higher water rates.

“We’ve coasted for decades in most places around the country,” Mehan says. “Our rates are half that of northern European cities. Rates are going up and need to go up.”

The team behind the Michigan State study says that annual water bills will increase by nearly $600 over the next five years. Currently, an average annual bill is $120 per month, but in the future that average could be as high as $169 per month.

What can be done to ease this impending burden?

Researchers say restructuring water rates is one possible solution. According to the Vox article, “restructuring water rates involves determining the number of gallons a customer can use each month for a pre-negotiated fee. If a customer uses more than the set amount, they pay a penalty or overage fee. Recent research shows that when utilities restructure rates, it can help offset the rising costs of water service.”

Improving infrastructure, restructuring water rates and increasing public awareness about the issue are just a few ways we can start dealing with the issue.

And although we don’t have all the answers, our 500+ clients have found that cloud-based SCADA is one option to help their water utilities be more efficient and cut down on cost. Ultimately, this technology will translate to direct cost savings for people in your community.

A path to savings:

  • The initial set-up fee for a cloud-based SCADA system is a fraction of the cost of a traditional SCADA system.
  • With cloud-based SCADA, the costs that come with replacing outdated hardware go away. With cloud-based SCADA, it’s easy to make changes and upgrades to the web-based software.
  • With alert systems built-in, High Tide Technologies’ cloud-based SCADA notifies your team of any problems, such as power/equipment failures, overflows or leaks.

To learn more about the impact of cloud-based SCADA, see what we’ve done for rural municipalities.