Launch Slideshow

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Unexpected Payoff

Unexpected Payoff

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    Twice the size, half the priceWhen it implemented an automated data-collection system using operators' cell phones, the public works department of the city of Pearland, Texas, laid the groundwork for developing a model of sewer operations based on facts rather than best guesses. The model revealed that fewer new lift stations would be necessary, leading to a 47% reduction in projected capital expenditures.

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    Lift station with two (2) pumpsThis is a standalone lift station in a basin that's not leaky enough to require immediate remediation but which bears watching. Spikes reflect normal flow variation as well as rainfall. Source: Kirst Kosmoski Inc.

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    Citywide solutionBlue drops represent electronically monitored (SCADA) lift stations; tan drops show the lift stations monitored using the cell phone-based system. Source: Kirst Kosmoski Inc.

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    Operators enter data by scrolling to an item on their phone's screen. Once a choice is highlighted, the “OK” key makes that selection. If the phone isn't within range of a cell tower, the data automatically transmits when the operator is back in range. Photos: BirdNest Services Inc.

Phoning it in

Operators monitor and manage pump activity with a few presses of a button.

Bobby Whisenant discovered BirdNest Services Inc. at an EPA Clean Rivers meeting in 2005. He was superintendent of water production and wastewater treatment for the city of Pearland, Texas, at the time (he has since retired), and what he saw was an inexpensive solution to a vexing problem.

“We had a manual logging system,” Whisenant says. “Everything was handwritten in the field, and then the supervisor back in the office would have to decipher it and transcribe it into another log. It took an unbelievable amount of time.”

In contrast, the BirdNest system would allow operators to use cell phones to collect lift-station, water, and wastewater-treatment data, and it would maintain that data at a central data center, accessible in near real time.

The BirdNest system that Whisenant installed in 2005 uses standard Sprint/Nextel cell phones (the company will soon support any cell phone with Web browsing capability). A Java applet is installed on the phone, and when an operator logs into BirdNest on his or her phone in the morning, it connects to the company's data center in Dallas. After verifying the user, the system downloads the stations the operator should visit that day and the data to be captured.

The operator enters data into the cell phone as it's gathered. The applet conducts simple error checking and data validation on the phone, and when the operator presses “Send,” it transmits the data to the central processing center, where the data is processed in near real time. Whisenant typically viewed reports before operators made it back to the office.

The system also works without cell phones in locations where operators have access to the Internet, in which case they enter data directly into BirdNest from their laptop or desktop PC.

“What used to take hours and days now takes seconds,” Whisenant says. “It was great, the money the city saved in overtime.”

A built-in report generator allows users to view all water- and waste-treatment plants and pumping stations. Clicking a report heading shows all the plants or lift stations in each “district,” which could be a route, geographic area, or everything handled by one operator or supervisor. Data can be sorted and viewed in many ways, including as numbers and as line or bar charts.

Whisenant reports that the system is a real help in managing the operations of a department that oversees more than 25,000 water connections. He's used it to:

  • Prepare for drought conditions by monitoring water usage as a percentage of capacity
  • Monitor wastewater flow vs. rainfall, as a measure of I&I
  • Respond quickly to potential lift-station problems by tracking pump run times and utility usage
  • Monitor equipment condition and maintenance schedules to ensure that all work is performed in a timely manner
  • Monitor the deployment of the field force.

“A lot of cities can't afford SCADA,” Whisenant concludes. “With BirdNest, you have a system that's cheap and does the job. It's like a 21st century management system without the SCADA price tag.”