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Digital Master Plans for Water Utilities: A Conversation with Steve and Travis

November 17, 2023
Min Read
Woman across the table from 2 men talking

In the wastewater world, we have experience creating master plans for treatment plants and collection systems. However, the need of the new age is a digital master plan, one that would chart a path to achieving a utilities’ goals in the near- to long-term future. What goes into it, however, may cause a little dilemma. Steve Drangsholt, Trinnex® Sales representative, and Travis Wagner, VP of Digital Consulting, discuss creating digital master plans, their benefits, and changing the narrative.

A physical infrastructure master plan and a data digital master plan are more similar than different. Travis believes the constituents of a digital master plan entirely depend upon a utility’s goals, needs, and regulatory drivers, perhaps in the next five to 15 years. The slight difference there is between these plans, may come from situational analysis, which involves looking at the data available, the software, the systems present, instead of looking at capacity hydraulics and hard infrastructure.

Based off these plans, you build pilots with different technologies, software, analytics, and create a stepwise approach to reach your goal in the number of years you have; something that Trinnex is trying to guide utilities around.

Rule of Thumb for Digital Master Plans

A good rule of thumb for outward planning of digital master plans is to revise them a bit more frequently than we would a traditional physical master plan. In fact, different states and locales have different requirements for physical infrastructure master plans and how often they must be updated. Considering the rapid changes the industry goes through — rise of the large language models, different analytics and software, new products, and newer regulations — Travis suggests it would be best to update the plan at least every 18-24 months or more frequently, like every 12-18 months, if possible. It is also beneficial for utilities to develop a living digital master plan that helps them cycle through rapid changes in regulations and the technology landscape.

However, utilities already struggle with resource acquisition and allocation, and if they want to look 18 to 24 months down the road, it would be wise to immediately start thinking about the larger changes they want. For instance, transitioning from physical server infrastructure to cloud infrastructure. Having digital data and digital plan to support utilities resolve these problems is a huge benefit.

Benefits of a Digital Master Plan

While in conversation, Steve and Travis agree, and emphasize, that a digital master plan will allow utilities to get more from what they already have. Breaking down data silos, and sharing data across systems and groups, will help utilities gain significant efficiencies and benefits.

Utilities can leverage digital data and save hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not millions, just in person power. By reviewing spreadsheets, along with data from SCADA, utilities can understand how to efficiently leverage our people’s time and use their skills more efficiently and effectively.

However, we may not want utilities to move too rapidly. Utilities are providing regulated water quality and collecting wastewater, which is good only at a certain pace. A new tech could be more advanced, it could be a great software or a great analytics process, but it just might not work for them. So, piloting, testing slowly, reviewing what works and what doesn't, and being open to mistakes, is the way to go about changes in the water industry.

There’s also culture change. A lot of the new hires within utilities are more used to smartphones, tablets, and so on, but it's still a big culture change internally, and a substantial change from security perspective too.

Upgrading the Existing Legacy and Digital Solutions

Most utilities have legacy systems, and deciding which among these systems would benefit the most from a digital solution could be a challenge.

Travis believes that one way to go about deciding it is setting forth your goals, evaluating where you currently are, and deciding where you want to go. Many utilities may ask themselves: can we link SCADA to flow metering on the wastewater side to the plant influence? How are the weather patterns going in? Trinnex can review if we can be more efficient and effective at regulatory reporting from utility plants, SCADA, and other places.

Utilities will have to work with their operations team, engineering team, planning team, and senior executive team and assess their biggest pain points. Tying data together, reporting on it, analyzing it will indeed help utilities gain return on investment for each of those areas.

Building Trust

As digital is still new to the water industry, utilities with digital systems must give confidence to their customers that their goals around operations, capital spending, and equity are all being met on a regular basis. It’s all about transparency. When capital planning is underway, Travis suggests utilities to maintain transparency and declare how their operations are performing, what’s the overall budget and performance of their systems, and how the construction projects that they are supporting are moving along the way.

Public utilities are open about this with dashboarding and interactive interfaces on their websites, which allows customers to see how their rates are being spent, how efficiently everything is being managed — right from capital planning to diversity, equity inclusion, and even the day-to-day operations.

Changing the Narrative

Steve, being a sales representative, has witnessed that utilities have historically only been in the news for not-so-pleasant topics, and the water industry was often an industry that was out of sight, out of mind, which has often caused the customers to retract and only communicate only when they had to.

However, with lead pipe service line issues, PFAS, and increasing sewer discharges and CSOs, customers are communicating more. They are connecting with utilities to know if there's beach closure because of the pollution event, if the drinking water in their home is safe from a lead service line replacement, if we are protected from PFAS, and if there’re treatment processes in place that will ensure the quality of water. This communication should only get more intense and grow with time.

We also need to consider that people are used to having information at their fingertips. So, when capital projects such as a tunnel for CSO control, a water main on the street, and replacing lead service lines take a lot longer than expected, utilities need to communicate about it. Having data, visualizations, reporting platform, and moreover data transparency, will provide an opportunity to the utility leadership to communicate more and communicate better — the goal that will help us change the narrative, positively.

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Written by
Travis Wagner, PE
Travis Wagner, PE
Travis is a water sector leader, passionate about optimizing infrastructure decisions through hardware, software, and professional services.
Steve Drangsholt, PE
Steve Drangsholt, PE
Steve is an active WEF leader, Trinnex account executive, and passionate water quality and equity advocate.

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