Alternative Energy

Getting smart about water systems

13th February 2020
Alex Lynn

Some technological developments – for better or for worse – capture attention and headlines endlessly. Other advancements in our water systems impact our safety daily and determine the ease with which we go about our day, but since they operate behind the scenes, they rarely get the appreciation they deserve. Having a constant supply of clean hot and cold water and central heating falls into the second category. 

By Spencer Culley, Operations Director, Churchill Environmental Services

Traditional closed system water treatments are a necessity and are used almost universally, yet they are resource and time inefficient, and maintenance needs to be carried out regularly at a high cost.

Now, however, that’s changing. The technology behind our water safety is rapidly developing and highlighting areas of risk and inefficiency in our old systems.

Plugging the leaks

One of the most obvious risks with water systems is the development of a leak. At best a leak can cause quite an inconvenience; at the wrong time and place, a leak can be devastating and require the replacement of damaged equipment and infrastructure, as well as downtime and loss of business. Even if it is caught in time and little damage is done, tens of thousands of pounds are lost each year by UK businesses through water loss alone. Smart water meters and valves are game-changers in this respect. 

Smart meters measure the flow rate of water. By identifying an abnormal flow rate and the area in which it is occurring, a leak can be located and an alert sent to the system manager. The smart valve, connected to a control interface, such as an app on the manager’s phone, can then be activated remotely to cut off the water supply and prevent the leak before it has done any damage, day or night. The incident will also automatically activate a reactive job for repair.

At a time when business environments are increasingly recognising the value of work-life balance, apps and smart technology like this can also provide constant monitoring and peace of mind without demanding emergency human intervention. A leak in the office no longer needs to cut anyone’s weekend short.

Corrosive influence

Of course, water system management is a far larger job than plugging leaks. Maintaining the health of a closed water system is an ongoing task and one of the most important elements of the job is protection against corrosion. New developments are making closed water systems more eco-friendly than ever. Recently, there has been an increase in the use of thin-wall low carbon steel pipe work for new installations of closed systems. 

The material is 50% lighter than traditional mild steel, meaning installation is easier and the manufacturing process produces less carbon dioxide. With significant pressure across most industries to become more environmentally sustainable, this has become a popular option and may well continue to grow in popularity. However, these systems are even more vulnerable to corrosion than traditional pipes if they are not maintained properly.

Corrosion in pipes can go unnoticed for long periods but the sludge produced within the pipes can do serious damage to heat exchangers, pumps, valves, and other components, eventually leading to potentially hugely expensive fixes. A few recent high profile cases have led to bills exceeding £1 million for the combined cost of damage, investigation and legal charges. 

Connected corrosion monitoring can now be installed into pipework with a probe in the water flow which monitors levels of dissolved oxygen, the cause of corrosion. Continuous real-time data on damage and corrosion takes the chance out of maintenance and reduces the cost of unnecessary, precautionary maintenance such as system flushing. 

Real-time monitoring data is the signifier of today’s technology. This technology is taking the guess-work – as expert as it is – out of facilities management altogether, from corrosion monitoring to footfall measures, and keeping track of disposables in the office so that resources such as paper towels and printer paper are always in good supply.

Legionella growth

Real-time, high-accuracy monitoring is even more vital the more there is at stake. Outbreaks of legionella, a bacterium that causes Legionnaires’ disease, across the UK are relatively rare. This is not due to low risk, however, but stringent protective measures. The UK has strict guidelines on Legionella control and in the worst case scenarios, failure to be compliant can have deadly consequences.

In the past, failings have arisen in situations where hard-to-reach areas in a plumbing system have not been monitored properly. Churchill Environmental Services has found through experience that hot water return pipework often fails to meet acceptable standards, with sinks, service ducts, and pipes behind panels often falling within the temperature range at which legionella can thrive.

Legionella is defended against in a number of ways. It is critical to maintain water temperatures above and below the levels in which the bacteria survive and grow to levels at which water can be contaminated. In the UK, this means that cold water needs to be kept below 20°C and hot water above 50°C. If these temperatures cannot be achieved, other disinfection treatment must be used. 

Remote probes can play a vital role in identifying which areas of a system are at risk. Systematic design and implementation of temperature monitoring points and the installation of a central hub enables the collection of real-time data. This allows specialists to identify specific problem areas of complex plumbing networks which would have otherwise taken months to find. As such, problem areas can be identified and issues remedied before Legionella growth results in system-wide contamination.

Stagnation of hot water must be avoided and all water outlets including showers, baths, and sink taps should be flushed regularly. However, some buildings have significant void periods during which they are unoccupied and no water is running. This is often the case for hotels in off-seasons and student accommodation during holidays. As a result, smart meters play as vital a role in determining a lack of necessary water flow as excess flow in the case of a leak. The meters can detect when there is low or absent water flow and flush the systems automatically.

The speed of water sampling has vastly increased. Current methods require samples to be sent to a laboratory for testing within 48 hours. It could then take a further 10 days for the presence of legionella bacteria to be confirmed. However, a newly-developed portable rapid testing platform allows testing to take place onsite, with results returned within 45 minutes. With the outbreak of Legionnaires’ being such a serious incident, the days saved in testing time are vital. 

Get up and go

The utilisation of smart technology is crucial in moving water systems management from reactive to proactive. Continuous real-time data means that the health of systems can continually be maintained at an optimum level and any inefficiencies can be addressed long before they create problems in the system. Failure to stay atop of system health can lead to more serious problems and ultimately to repairs, causing downtime, loss of production, and frustrated staff. There is an undeniable move towards a more proactive approach throughout the facilities management sector.

All facilities managers are now faced with the same challenge: the demand to increase value and sustainability while lowering costs. This focus on environmental sustainability is gaining traction and will continue to do so in the coming years. As the sector continues to be squeezed in this way, real-time data is going to become even more important. 

Not only will an organisation see the way its own system is performing day to day, but the continuous collection of data will also allow an internal benchmark to be produced through which targets can be set for efficient system maintenance.

Smart technology in water system maintenance will be a game-changer. It will create transparency of water use within the organisation, allow real-time monitoring and automation of processes, encourage more sustainable practices, and create an industry which is more proactive in achieving both its own goals and wider environmental practices. 

The role of experts will no longer be to carry out repetitive and inefficient sampling. Instead, specialists will be those with a holistic understanding of the systems they are managing and of the technological environment so that the most appropriate solution can be adopted.

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