Carla A. Reid, GM/CEO, Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission
At 3:00 a.m. on a cold January in 2011, a devastating water main break triggered a regional crisis in the suburbs outside of the nation’s capital. A 54-inch water main had ruptured, spewing some 50 million gallons of water above ground, damaging cars and businesses, and shutting down one of the busiest stretches of highway in the country. Four hundred-thousand customers were put under a Boil Water Alert—for three days. The price tag on all the damage and ultimate repairs: approximately $3 million.
While thankfully not a common occurrence, breaks like this highlight the importance of repairing and maintaining our critical water infrastructure. As one of the largest water utilities in the nation, WSSC is at the forefront in combating this major challenge. This is an invisible crisis. While the nation’s water infrastructure is largely out of sight and out of mind, the water industry must be vocal and visible on the need to address this issue.
The American Society of Civil Engineers consistently grades the state of the nation’s water infrastructure as poor (“D” for water and “D+” for wastewater in the most recent report). The price tag is around $1 trillion to maintain and expand water infrastructure over the next 25 years. Yet, despite its importance to the health, safety and quality of life for every Americans, water infrastructure receives a small portion of federal infrastructure investment. Current governmental capital spending on water infrastructure funds only one-third of our national needs.
WSSC is certainly not immune to these fiscal issues. Providing safe, clean water and essential wastewater service to 1.8 million residents in two of the largest counties in Maryland, WSSC’s service area spans nearly 1,000 square miles and includes approximately 11,000 miles of water and sewer pipeline. We also maintain two water filtration plants that produce an average of 165 million gallons per day, and six water resource recovery facilities that treat more than 200 million gallons of wastewater per day. To maintain this system, WSSC’s current budget is more than $1.4 billion, which includes significant funding to replace aging pipes, as well as to maintain and upgrade our pumps and plants.
To address these challenges, WSSC is tapping into its 100-year history of innovation to make necessary changes. By installing pipe-monitoring systems, upgrading the pipe materials, implementing cutting-edge treatment processes, and overhauling our billing and workforce management systems, WSSC is embracing change and tackling its toughest issues through innovation.
Creating a Culture of Innovation
At WSSC, we’re creating a culture of innovation, encouraging every employee to think outside of the box to solve problems both big and small. In 2017, we hired staff dedicated to this goal, and established the Innovation and Research Council to review ideas for implementation. WSSC also recently launched the Innovation Hub, an online tool for employees to submit ideas to address challenges at our water filtration and resource recovery facilities.
From this hub, WSSC is currently running four pilot projects, which will improve and streamline our production and treatment processes. Our first Innovation Day is scheduled for the spring, allowing employees who have submitted ideas to the Hub to “strut their stuff” and all staff to experience the exciting work at WSSC. The ultimate goal for Innovation is to develop future revenue streams for WSSC that will leverage our expertise and the patents that are developed.
Acoustic Fiber Optics
Our history of innovation dates all the way back to WSSC’s inception in 1918, when the simple act of combining multiple community water services constituted a breakthrough in the industry. Fast-forward to today, and the challenges have expanded to maintaining a massive system without disrupting service for customers.
WSSC’s largest diameter pipes are constructed of concrete with steel bands wrapped around the inner circumference as a means of reinforcement. If enough of the steel bands snap in one of these pre-stressed concrete cylinder pipes (PCCP), they can break.
A remarkable technological advance, that was developed by Mike Woodcock, an WSSC employee, is deployed in nearly all of our PCCP, including the section that broke in 2011. Called Acoustic Fiber Optics (AFO), it consists of a cable floating inside the PCCP to “listen” for impending signs of a break. When a steel wire breaks inside a pipe, it makes an audible noise (ping). When the AFO “hears” a ping, the data is recorded and sent to WSSC. Armed with this crucial advanced warning of a potential problem in the system’s largest pipes, we can schedule repairs.
In 2017, in a section of pipe near the 2011 break, AFO alerted WSSC of impending trouble. Pings from the AFO inside that pipe gave WSSC enough warning to repair the pipe in an orderly and timely way. The AFO gave WSSC the luxury of time to reroute water and make planned repairs, saving ratepayers millions in emergency costs.
WSSC began installing the AFO technology in 2007. A decade later, WSSC has the longest active AFO monitoring system in the world, with more than 100 miles of our PCCP, which ranges from 36 to 96 inches in diameter being monitored 24/7.The $21 million investment in this innovative technology has alerted WSSC more than 20 times to major breaks and saved customers more than $42 million.
When it comes to PCCP and the other large-diameter pipe, WSSC wants to maintain a proactive, methodical and strategic approach to repairs. PipeDiver is a key tool to help accomplish this goal. This 200-pound, 11 foot-longmini-submarine provides pipe wall assessment in real time. It floats through the pipe and sends a signal to detect the condition of the walls of large water and wastewater sewer lines searching for areas in need of repair. If the walls are weak in a segment of pipe, WSSC can plan repairs as needed.
The information we gather from inspections helps us avert failures. When you compare the cost of the inspection versus responding to an emergency or rupture, the cost for the inspection and analysis is minimal.
Not all innovation is centered around technological advancements. In 2016, WSSC became the first water utility in the country to make zinc-coated ductile iron pipe and V-Bio® Enhanced Polyethylene Encasement the standard materials for water main replacement or new pipe installation. Over the last two years, WSSC has replaced just under 100 miles of water main with this new, innovative material.
Traditional ductile iron pipe lasts about 50-75 years, and approximately 40 percent of our water and sewer mains are more than 50 years old. By switching to zinc-coated ductile iron pipe, WSSC expects not to replace it for 100 years or more than 100 years of uninterrupted service before the pipe has to be replaced again. While it will take time for this new material to make a significant dent in the number of breaks we have to repair every year, this type of forward thinking will pay significant dividends for future generations.
Poop to Power
A significant challenge facing all utilities that treat wastewater is what to do with the solid waste, or biosolids, produced in the treatment process. WSSC’s Bio- Energy Project will significantly reduce the amount of biosolids left over from the treatment process, thus reducing costs to haul and dispose of the product. The remaining biosolids will be significantly cleaner (Class A), making the disposal process much easier and allowing the final product to be sold and distributed as fertilizer. With cleaner Class A biosolids, WSSC will also save money by eliminating the use of lime, which is applied to Class B biosolids to control odor.
As an added benefit, the process to create the Class-A biosolids will generate renewable fuel to help run the plant. This new process produces methane gas, which will be captured to provide the Piscataway facility—which houses the Bio-Energy Project—with a reliable power source that is completely off the grid. The new process will reduce WSSC’s greenhouse gas emissions by 15 percent each year.
Utility of the Future Today
These are just a handful of innovations WSSC is employing to combat the challenges we face in a fiscally tight, service-oriented industry. WSSC was recently named a Utility of the Future Today by a group of industry peers, in recognition of our forward-looking approach.
We know there is much more work to be done. By fully engaging with our employees, just like we did with the development of AFO to prevent catastrophic breaks, we will continue to meet our challenges head on. Our goal is to become not just a world-class water utility, but an innovative one that is recognized across all industries as best in class.