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Technology and water conservation: A marriage made in Volusia County

Posted On: August 7, 2019

In the profit-driven business world, that just wouldn’t make sense. But when the commodity is water, reducing consumption is the name of the game. That’s the situation Volusia County’s Water Resources and Utilities Division finds itself in. And now, the county has a new, high-tech tool in its ongoing efforts to promote conservation and decrease the amount of water used by its 17,000 customers. An added benefit: The innovative, automated meter system will help consumers avoid nasty billing surprises at the end of the month from excessive water use caused by an undetected leak.

If all goes as planned, the county hopes to reduce water use by as much as 200,000 gallons a day. And that’s really good news, because being a utility provider isn’t about pumping as much water out of the ground as possible to quench the thirst of a growing customer base. Even more important is being efficient and responsible stewards over precious natural resources to ensure there’s enough fresh, safe water flowing through the pipes for generations to come. It’s always being mindful that water resources aren’t limitless. It’s this notion that quite literally, every drop of water matters.

“We’re basically trying to be as efficient as possible,” said Mike Ulrich, the county’s director of water resources and utilities. “We want to be able to account for every drop of water.”

The advanced metering infrastructure equipment that’s being installed to help it do just that includes a series of sophisticated sensors and transmitters placed on meters and flushing units within the water distribution systems owned and operated by the county – a total of approximately 17,605 meters. The technology vastly improves water conservation and efficiency efforts by enabling the county to closely monitor water use patterns and quickly detect excessive water use – often the result of undetected leaks.

“One obvious benefit is the ability for us to read each of these meters literally in real time,” explained Ulrich.

With the advanced analytics the system produces, the county generates dual reports every day from the data captured by the sensors – one report that flags meters that have been running continuously for 24 hours and the other that flags meters where water usage has exceeded 10,000 gallons within a 72-hour period. For a customer showing abnormally high usage, there could be a legitimate explanation – maybe they’re filling a swimming pool or irrigating freshly laid sod. In other cases, it could be a problem like water spewing out of a leaky toilet, ruptured pipe or broken sprinkler head. When a meter is running continuously, that’s almost a sure sign of a problem – an expensive one – if it’s not addressed immediately.

In the past, a leak or other problem might not get detected until the county read a customer’s meter at the end of the 30-day billing cycle. With the new technology, the county is able to quickly notify customers about a potential problem. That not only helps them avoid a potentially exorbitant water bill, but the early detection enables residents to address a water problem before a leak causes structural damage to their house or property. And all that leaking, wasteful water use is prevented as well.

While all of that is welcome news to customers, perhaps no one notices the difference more than Christina Martin. As the county’s utility administrative and customer service manager, her staff is used to fielding calls from upset and perplexed customers wanting to know why their water usage and bill had gone up so much from the previous month. Now, after generating their morning usage reports, they call customers every day to alert them to a possible problem. They also refer them to the county’s online leak detection checklist to help them try to diagnose their problem. On a recent morning, the system generated a report flagging 78 accounts showing unusually high water usage. County staff was busy contacting everyone on the list, just like they do every day. So far, the customer reception has been decidedly positive.

“Everybody we’ve called so far has been very, very appreciative – especially the customers who learned that they had a leak,” said Martin.

The county launched the advanced metering program in 2017 with a pilot project servicing Volusia’s 2,125 meters in Halifax Plantation. The project helped familiarize county staff with the system’s operations and capabilities. By far, the most ambitious part of the project occurred this year, with integration of the system into the approximately 11,752 meters connected to county utilities within the 130-square-mile Blue Spring water basin. Next year, the County’s remaining 3,700 customers in the Spruce Creek and Southeast service areas are scheduled to be brought online to complete the project.

Volusia County isn’t the first utility in the area to employ smart metering technology. But in Blue Spring, an ecologically sensitive water basin where it operates five water treatment plants and 12 production wells, the county has taken the program to an entirely new level of efficiency and accountability. There, the high-tech sensors and transmitters have been installed on the county’s wells, treatment plants and water transmission lines as well. A rather novel use of the technology, it helps the county to optimize the measurement and monitoring of its groundwater withdrawals. Additionally, the sensors even track the temperature of the water, which is critical to decreasing the amount of water needed to flush the system. Now, the county will not only know if customers have leaks, but they’ll also know if there are leaks or loss of product in the process of pumping, treating and delivering water to customers – water waste problems on the county’s end that need to be addressed to effectively service an ever-growing population.

“We know more people are coming, but we have a finite amount of ground water,” said Ulrich. “So we’re not just asking our customers to be efficient. We need to be efficient too.”

That added level of efficiency and accountability caught the attention of the St. Johns River Water Management District, which has been working with local governments to improve the health and water flow at Blue Spring. The district was so supportive of the project that it awarded the county a grant to pay for half of the $957,000 cost to outfit the Blue Spring basin with the smart metering equipment, deciding it was a good investment toward the state’s overall recovery strategy for Blue Spring. The Water Management District says it’s a collaboration that’s yielding results.

“We’re working together to improve water quality in our district,” Abby Johnson, the district’s intergovernmental coordinator, recently told the Volusia County Council. “Thank you for being excellent partners.”

Ulrich couldn’t agree more, especially since he knows it will require continued cooperation and collaboration among local, state and regional agencies to effectively tackle water issues.

“We can’t solve these massive challenges on our own. But by working together, we can,” said Ulrich.

Meanwhile, Ulrich is keenly aware that he’s not just in the business of treating and selling water. The County’s Water Resources and Utilities Division sees itself in the business of water resource protection as well. Because there’s a growing awareness that water, the natural environment and the economy are all interconnected. Problems like green algae and red tide aren’t just environmental matters. They hurt the economy too. And no matter where you live, water issues should be everyone’s concern.

“When you’re talking about water, it’s everybody’s water,” said Ulrich. “It knows no jurisdictional boundary. Everybody needs to be concerned about it.”

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