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Spilling Over: America’s Water Infrastructure Needs a Splash of EAM for Greater Cost Efficacy

America's water infrastructure needs a splash of EAM for great cost efficacy

From a cost perspective, EAM-enabled assets can, once and for all, quench our thirst for dependable water infrastructure.

Dams, power lines, highways – infrastructure provides the public with a basic standard of living commensurate with our personal investment into these resources. In recent years, unfortunately, nobody seems to use the word "infrastructure" at all without including "crumbling," "aging," "failing" or "underfunded."

Water infrastructure – be it drinking water, wastewater or wet weather resources – has seen a particularly rough go of it, namely in regard to piping. With such a distributed network of pipes running underground, repairing small disparate leaks presents obvious challenges. But as the contractors of the world and their employers scratch their heads, $14 billion worth of potable water – a finite resource, by the way –  goes to waste every single year, according to estimates from the World Bank.

Thanks to technological advancements in the field of enterprise asset management, a vision of smarter, more reliable water infrastructure is just over the horizon, one that can divert resources in the event of leaks, alert utilities of worrisome activity underground and secure availability of clean drinking water to the public in nearly any event imaginable. While idyllic, making EAM strategies like advanced sensoring and proactive maintenance part of an infrastructure recovery plan makes good business sense too. From a cost perspective, EAM-enabled assets can, once and for all, quench our thirst for dependable water infrastructure.

Cost leveraging during the planning & execution stages

As is the case with most infrastructure deficiencies in the U.S., budgetary allocation rests at the heart of the issue. Estimates from the American Society of Civil Engineers predicted a more than $84 billion gap between what we spend on water infrastructure and what's needed by 2020. This funding dearth is projected to increase costs for homeowners by $59 billion – or $900 in annual utility costs per household – and for businesses by $147 billion, as well as depriving our gross domestic product of $416 billion in savings.

That said, as any good project manager will tell you, hedging costs through precise, measured integration is crucial for preventing spend from getting out of control. Investing in scalable asset management platforms like IBM Maximo as the backbone of the revitalization effort allows for the flexibility to address the demands of a community's unique water infrastructure sensibly and in a financially focused manner. One city, for example, could start by attaching monitoring technology at water pump stations to determine how fluctuations in pressure or other instances of overuse may have damaged certain sections of local infrastructure more than others. EAM solutions prioritize work for repair teams and contractors, as well as help inform an overall attack plan for the greater infrastructure upgrade.

Avoiding the problem only makes things worse

Depending on the final ruling, recent developments in Flint, Michigan, may demonstrate how negligence easily exacerbates problematic water systems. In a class-action lawsuit filed by Flint residents, the choice to draw local drinking water from the notoriously polluted Flint River as opposed to Lake Huron was but the first straw. The real trouble began when the Michigan Department of Environmental Quality, for whatever reason, allegedly failed to add anti-corrosive agents to Flint River water, which in turn, corroded iron water mains and delivered rusty, toxic water to residential taps.

The events in the city of Flint are still unfolding, and we don't bring it up as an example to demonize anyone before they've had their day in court. Instead, we want to demonstrate what can go wrong with water infrastructure if not maintained properly. In addition, let it be known the catalyst for this entire debacle centered around cost savings – according to CNN, Lansing District, where Flint resides, formerly paid Detroit for access to Lake Huron water. Sourcing from the Flint River was a cost reduction measure. So much for that wish.

If water authorities truly want a cost-effective method for upgrading and facilitating enhanced systems, EAM can deliver incredible savings from a comparatively minor "upfront" investment in software, devices and perhaps some organizational tweaks internally. Flint represents a worst-case scenario, true, but given the quality of the country's decades-old, undermaintained water assets, it's highly probable others could repeat the disastrous events in Michigan elsewhere. Only time will tell whether Michigan infrastructure overseers acted carelessly, but let their mistakes, intentional or otherwise, be a motivator for all of us to move toward a better future now before it's too late.

“Data acquisition and management cannot be understated in any asset-intensive industry."

Learning from the past to inform the future

Water infrastructure, like all other forms of infrastructure, is subject to time. With that in mind, what's stopping the next generation of water systems from succumbing to the same ill effects as its predecessors? Greater visibility and proactive maintenance, that's what.

We cannot overstate the value of thorough data acquisition and management in any asset-intensive industry, let alone those operating in an era where the technology is both easily attainable, affordable and intuitive. EAM integration not only gives water authorities the opportunity to begin collecting and cataloging information on their assets, but it gives these organizations a single platform through which data utilization can occur as well.

Think about the maintenance team whose straightforward repair project has hit an unforeseen snag – as days drag on, labor costs add up, and the utility may turn to rate hikes to cover the expenditure. Sensory information gleaned via telemetry could have clued asset managers into the problem before it turned into a complete quagmire. Or what if we forget about maintenance and focus on routine cleaning? Crew deployment doesn't really work without intelligence dictating which pipes have noticeable blockages or which ones have gone the longest without a good scrub.

EAM solutions – and the data they grant utilities access to – put smarter, more cost-effective asset decision-making within our reach. We just have to take the plunge.

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