Sep 09, 2021

Innovating Utility Operations

After COVID-19, the future of water operations lies in technical innovations

utility operations
Digital technology allowed Veolia to continue contract operations remotely during the pandemic.

Over the past year, the COVID-19 pandemic and the unprecedented restrictions it imposed on everyday life significantly affected just about every industry in the U.S. As the U.S. showed progress in containing the virus — now complicated by the Delta variant — the water and wastewater operations business at Veolia North America took stock of lessons learned during 2020 to bear a better future for its operations.

Unlike many other industries, water and wastewater operations were not shut down or forced to send employees to work from home when the pandemic struck. They had an essential service to provide, and employees showed dedication and commitment to showing up to work while safely going about their jobs amidst unprecedented restrictions. This shift created new and additional strains on Veolia North America’s (VNA) facility management network in communities across the country. The challenges it faced underscored the need for an innovative, technologically-savvy approach to facility management, spearheaded by industry professionals with a sophisticated grasp of digital solutions.

Throughout the pandemic, challenges faced by contract operators and the municipal customers that Veolia serves were enormous. Because of the essential nature of the business, Veolia was prepared to react quickly and comprehensively to changing realities that might otherwise threaten or undermine its mission. While the world was going into shutdown mode, the industry mobilized to provide resources and safety protocols so teams could continue providing services in an environment that did not create a risk to employees or others.

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Augmented Reality

Since August 2010 VNA has provided O&M services for the industrial wastewater treatment plant in the city of Hollister, California, which primarily treats waste from a local tomato cannery while collecting a portion of the city’s storm water runoff. This facility treats domestic, commercial, and industrial wastewater. VNA assesses the condition of the plant’s equipment to forecast repair and replacement costs for the coming year.

Due to the pandemic, travel restrictions eliminated the ability to provide personal, on-site inspections of the Hollister plant. The equipment assessment required the use of specialized tools (namely the Fluke 810 vibration meter, SDT 270 ultrasound meter and Flir thermal camera) to accurately determine the state of the components. Veolia’s on-site staff was not familiar with the operation of these tools, limiting its capacity to complete this critical function.

To accomplish this assessment, staff used an augmented reality (AR) tool — supplied by Fieldbit — which is part of Veolia’s Hubgrade Assist platform, a range of digital solutions. The AR tool was used to remotely connect the on-site staff with a technical specialist while conducting the evaluation of each asset’s condition. After which staff then made recommendations for repairs or upgrades that may have been required.

Besides the visual inspection and performance assessment, the teams were able to use maintenance tools to collect vibration, ultrasound and thermal imaging data. VNA also provided comprehensive consulting to reduce time and expenses for the customer thanks to the streamlined digitization process. In other words, the AR tool gave the asset manager and technical support team the ability to interact in real time with site staff to collect data using specialized maintenance tools, and allow workers to respond in a timely, streamlined manner.

With combined digital and human Hubgrade services, the city of Hollister was able to identify assets in need of immediate maintenance attention and develop a comprehensive plan for future investing without risking staff members’ safety. The AR tool proved to be a valuable, easy-to-use and efficient solution, a key enabler for remote supervision and management of asset condition assessments. Beyond the travel time and costs saved for the client, this technology reduced the risk for COVID-19 exposure for our colleagues.

This was not the only time Veolia has helped clients identify solutions utilizing transformative digital analyses and tactics. The country was already facing challenges in water and waste management that pre-date the pandemic. That is one key reason why Hubgrade encompasses a wide range of digital solutions for monitoring, evaluating, and optimizing facilities and infrastructure. By utilizing artificial intelligence, advanced machine learning algorithms, augmented reality tools, and more, Veolia professionals are committed to harnessing digital solutions to optimize operational efficiencies but maintaining the indispensable human element.

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Contract Operations Services

The nation’s vast networks of water distribution and wastewater collection systems are in desperate need of improvements and upgrades. An estimated 6 billion gallons of treated water is lost every day across the U.S. due to water main breaks, and many systems have gone 100 years or more without significant improvements. As the industry looks to the jobs and skill sets of the future, it must invest in people who can develop, understand and improve these systems, particularly using digital tools.

With increasing costs, municipalities can feel overwhelmed. They are increasingly seeing the value of partnering with a professional third-party with resources and expertise. Contract operators can preserve and improve water and wastewater infrastructure to provide services that the country depends on daily. The variety of contract operations projects demonstrates the value private companies can play in delivering essential services and mobilizing a workforce.

Teams of experts operate VNA’s Hubgrade centers for many municipal, industrial and commercial customers to ensure quality data, technology flexibility, and actionable data analysis. By combining real-time data, advanced analytics and human expertise, these innovations create new opportunities to manage and optimize water, energy and waste systems. Innovation is not simply a buzzword, but an essential skill set for the next generation of workers in the industry. These digital partnerships are enhancing and redefining VNA’s company culture and mission as a water and wastewater solutions provider.

Remote Protocols & Field Work

Another example can be found In Taunton, Massachusetts, where VNA’s ongoing digitization enhancements involve a remote protocol for all field employees to track project completion using iPads. By using these devices to determine what needs to be done, the company can operate efficiently, reducing paperwork while increasing higher completion rates and enhanced customer satisfaction.

The growing availability of digital tools requires knowledge to leverage data collection and analysis. Skilled operators harness data and advanced analytics to improve operational processes through insights. Training the current and incoming workforce on “smart technologies” will create opportunities for more diversified industry professionals liberated by the chance to operate digitally and remotely, and ensure VNA is providing services more inexpensively, quickly and of higher quality to customers.

The industry has learned a great deal on improving communications, supply chain management and customer relations that will only strengthen best practices. Delivering services without interruption or increased costs to customers during a disruptive year serves as an indicator of contract operations’ value. Veolia’s work with Hubgrade provides these services to local governments, businesses, and manufacturers by adding value through digitization to improve facility operational processes.

Throughout the pandemic, VNA proved to be nimble in developing and activating supply chains to ensure the delivery of needed resources under heightened restrictions. It maintained open lines of communication with customers and vendors, proving that it is up to the challenge. Though difficult, everyone can reflect on these collective efforts with pride because of the dedication, preparation, and ingenuity that our industry exhibited. With the services we historically provide, the digitalization we utilize for continuous improvement, and the people we train and skills we foster – our industry is well-positioned to meet the challenges that come next.

About the author

Keith Oldewurtel is executive vice president and chief operating officer of municipal water business for Veolia North America. Oldewurtel can be reached at [email protected].

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