The field of telemetry for utilities has skyrocketed with the growth and usage of digital and cellular-based technology. But where do the smaller or budget-conscious providers fit in? We talked with Dr. David Mundie, Founder and President of High Tide Technologies, about some of the issues facing utility providers and mid-size municipalities, how telemetry fits into the modern landscape, and some of the latest ideas in development for the future.
High Tide: Thanks for chatting with us. Before we dive, can you give readers some background on High Tide Technologies?
David Mundie: Thanks for having me. Back in 2002, I was working with a civil engineer at a dot.com company that went under. He knew the wastewater market really well and I, as an electrical engineer, knew telemetry really well. So we took what we both did best, knew there was a need, and decided to start High Tide Technologies.
HT: What problem did you see and set out to fix with High Tide?
DM: We specifically started the company to focus on rural, small- to medium-sized utility systems, those who could not afford the more sophisticated monitoring and control equipment, which led to basically doing a lot of things manually. What we’re able to provide is a solution that’s simple to install, no software or hardware to maintain in the collections, and doesn’t involve a big server (because it’s all Internet based), and has full 24/7 support. Smaller utilities are on-call 24/7 but can’t necessarily be at the plant to look at a screen. Instead they can check their levels from anywhere and feel good that things are still working. We’re right there with them, any time. It’s peace of mind.
HT: What kinds of problems are utilities and municipalities coming to High Tide to solve?
DM: In the wastewater world, there are all sorts of environmental regulations [to stop] overflow and spoil the environment. Most states require that someone drives by and looks at the unit once a day. When you have telemetry, you don’t have to physically visit; you can access the information before you get there, which cuts down on overtime and makes the system run more smoothly.
On the water side, we’ve been in stations that had no telemetry and to monitor everything, they drive down the road and see that the target on the tank is low, flip the switch, and hope to remember later to switch it off. They have water loss from leaving it on too long and overflowing the tank. The state [government] do a lot of regulation on water loss, but also have the problem with tanks too low and not enough to fight a fire in the hydrants. But having a system that is automatically controlled can eliminate all those problems.
HT: So telemetry helps keep levels accurate, and helps the whole operation run more efficiently. Can you give an example?
DM: Sure. We had one customer who had 40% of the water produced lost somehow. They measured this by adding up water billed from meters at customer sites compared to what meters at the plant says and the numbers didn’t match at all. And after installing one of our monitoring and control products, they got it down to 30% within a couple of months and it keeps improving the more time goes on, refining their system. Loss numbers like that affects funding for plant expansions, budgets, etc. Telemetry helps solve those mysteries.
HT: Why would a municipality or utility board choose High Tide? What’s the benefit?
DM: The thing about our stuff is that there is no custom programming and we can get a system up and running within a week or two. A typical SCADA system is customer-specific. The way we do it, everybody is sharing the resources. We make the same box for everybody, in different sizes. And we can ship it the next day after the order is placed so [the customer] can be up and running fairly quickly, probably within a week or so. It’s less expensive because there is no central server they have to maintain and staff. Our solutions are about one-third to one-fourth of the cost of traditional (typically radio systems or phone dialers), which is helpful for stricter budgets or smaller municipalities.
We do have subscription service that’s like a rental service fee for the system and even if we take 10 years of fees, our systems are still less expensive than traditional because traditional systems need maintenance, and that gets costly.
HT: And High Tide systems don’t need maintenance?
DM: We think that the easier you can make it, the users can do their own maintenance instead of calling a technician for $1000 to fix it. We ship a lot of spare parts and people can service it themselves, even if they’re not technical. We provide 24/7 support. Big municipalizes have that but small municipalities need that kind of help. Their radio supplier won’t do that.
Sometimes municipalities have different systems in place or more piecemeal set-up. We can do a mix and match of products and parts—whatever the municipality needs. It all reports back to the server and the server doesn’t care what the data comes from. Customers benefit from getting accurate data in real-time, which allows them to provide their service efficiently and effectively.
HT: The Internet of Things is a fast-evolving idea that is quickly coming to fruition in products like smart homes, self-driving cars, and cloud-based SCADA. What do you see for the future of the IoT technology, both positive notes and negative ones?
DM: The positive side is it drives down the cost of doing more sophisticated monitoring and control the hardware is going down, the cost of communications is going down, which makes it more cost-effective.
On the negative side, computers crash and you’re depending on the company to turn on and off the tank. All these stations have manual overrides so people have to revert to what they did before equipment.
The nice thing about our systems, there’s not a single point of failure. You might lose one tank one pipe, but not the whole system. We try to retain redundancies on our server farm. We have customers have lighting hit and we can do tweaks to their controls until that unit is repaired.
If the tank is fried by lighting, we put timers on the pump station—which is based on history since we have that data—and we can go days and keep things maintained and if usage changes, it might be a little off, but not completely dead.
HT: What trends do you see unfolding that make you excited for the future of your business/industry?
DM: Utilities are getting more sophisticated in the preventative maintenance areas. Equipment used to run until the pump died then they’d replace the pump but it’s cheaper to repair than replace. We’re getting more sophisticated with the data we collect so [utilities] can start doing predictive analysis and see the performance over time and know when to service it before it fails completely. One of the big things that telemetry lets you do is collect, monitor, and control in real time. In the past, someone had to do the analysis by hand (via graphs) but software on the servers’ analyzes the data and can alert to an upcoming repair before it fails, which saves time, money, and energy, and manpower.
Some of our utilities really think about the cost and budgeting, and want to know and utilize all their options. I mean, there are $30,000 pumps that cost only $5000 to repair it, as opposed to replacing completely.
HT: Anything else you can say about the state of telemetry in municipality infrastructures and utility service providers?
DM: There are a lot of changes happening right now in the Internet of Things market because the cellular companies are adding stuff to go after this new market, looking for ways to adapt and changing the way the markets work. It’s a lot of small connections using just a little bit of data as opposed to a few connections that use a lot of data and It really affects cellular companies; they can’t make money if they don’t make X amount per modem but they’re not going to sell the millions of them at the price they need. For example, we want 2GB for our movies on our phones, but the sensor in the pump only needs a few bytes every 5-10 minutes. This new market is disrupting their pricing strategies. And affects how we design the future equipment.