As with many aspects of the American economy, the water industry was affected by Covid-19 in various and profound ways. However, the pandemic may have a silver lining in that it seems to have shaken a historically slow-to-react industry out of its slumber. With its sudden awakening, a realization of just how powerful digital transformation can be has taken hold within businesses and utilities alike. Now, much attention is paid to different aspects of digital technology and how it can help water operators work more efficiently, adapt to problems faster, and, ultimately, conserve more water while ostensively saving money and reducing redundancies along the way.
Here’s how Covid-19 has profoundly shaped the water industry’s approach to so many aspects of its operations.
Automation, Employee Absenteeism and Social Distancing at Work
Covid-19 introduced myriad challenges into the daily working environment of water operators – the most significant change likely being social distancing. However, with the continued rise of Omicron cases even within the last few weeks, having employees at work in the traditional sense (whether due to increased illnesses or imposed shutdowns) meant that ensuring water quality testing was done in a timely manner continued to be a challenge.
Automation has certainly helped reduce both unnecessary contact with equipment and other personnel. It has also ensured that the testing process can be continuous and scheduled at the proper intervals so that tests aren’t missed, and that results can be recorded and analyzed in real-time. Automating processes has allowed many water operators to keep their operations consistent even in uncertain times. With automation in place, companies can dispatch personnel according to results. For example, suppose pressure readings indicate a problem with a pressure release valve. In that case, operations might call a different person to the site instead of who they might alert for a chemical imbalance or a sudden spike in specific environmental factors.
This level of detail has allowed companies to act with more timely precision and with a level of certainty that might not have existed pre-automation. However, the pandemic likely pushed many operations to accelerate their automation plans and put processes into place to help offset disruptions directly related to COVID-19 and the new reality of working conditions across many industries.
Observing From Afar: Actionable Insights in Water Infrastructure
Much like automation, with less personnel possible on the floor (or even on-site), having the power of working remotely and collecting and analyzing data from afar has become a must-have for many businesses during the pandemic. As some experts moved to virtual offices, it became essential to have water monitoring capabilities available 24/7 from anywhere.
The trend of moving data to a secure cloud and having it easily accessible 24/7 will continue to be a must-have feature in the future. Also, with specific industries needing to deal with remote sites (like closed mining sites or distributed well locations), the move to the cloud will help personnel simplify testing protocols when they require covering large geographical areas.
Catching Disaster Before it Strikes with Monitoring
With both automation and the capability to capture insights from anywhere (in real-time), water operators can act faster to resolve issues like never before. Digital transformation, accelerated by the necessary pivots required to accommodate Covid-19 protocols, will likely have a long ongoing knock-on effect of helping businesses and utilities catch issues far earlier than the traditional monitoring practices of a few months or years ago.
In many KETOS case studies, specifically in agricultural, food processing, and mining verticals, the biggest up-side to this sudden digital transformation has been the speed and reliability of testing that helps companies catch issues before equipment damage or contamination occurs.
Many businesses across sectors took hits to their bottom line during the pandemic. From worker shortages to supply chain issues, predicting revenue was a challenge for organizations writ large. However, companies – especially utilities – are often reluctant to invest heavily in new technology even without uncertainty in the markets. Many, in fact, already deal with woefully constrained budgets.
New business models already consider a company’s reluctance or inability to invest large sums up-front on new infrastructure and equipment. Companies (like KETOS) have baked in alternative approaches, such as a $0-CAPEX model, to help companies protect their bottom line and avoid large up-front capital investments. It also has made it possible for organizations (from legacy utilities to innovative farming startups) to participate in the digital transformation of the water industry without the associated high costs of expensive infrastructure.
Light, modular, and interoperable equipment has helped usher in an era of automation and analytics within an industry that historically is slow to innovate. By removing the friction of extended purchasing processes and building services around low, affordable monthly fees (while removing the need for higher expenditures such as expensive third-party testing and analysis via data scientists), organizations are leveraging much more visibility while gaining access to real-time lab-accurate data that’s easy to understand offers actionable insights.
Predicting and Reducing Usage
Part of the sudden push towards digital transformation in the water industry originated in the need to become more resilient towards shifting conditions. Many organizations have realized how susceptible their operations are to various disaster scenarios. It’s not just Covid, either. The concern for water shortages (due to ongoing drought conditions in the west) has also pushed organizations to rethink their approach to usage.
Digital assets in water infrastructure can help companies calculate, predict, and reduce usage better. This focus on using technology to predict and control usage can help build resiliency and also save an organization money in the long and short term.
Accelerating the Economy by Investing in Updated Infrastructure
The pandemic has forced communities to reassess priorities and seek out homegrown avenues for investment to boost economic activity and improve aging infrastructure. As a result, water infrastructure and security have recently been prioritized alongside roads and bridges as part of the government’s infrastructure bill and potential Build Back Better legislation.
Building back from the lows of the pandemic has meant a renewed interest in protecting communities from other potential issues, such as water quality and security – and the government has shown interest in investing heavily. For example, the national “American Jobs Plan” plans to pour $111 billion into water infrastructure. On top of that is the $35 billion “Drinking Water and Wastewater Infrastructure Act” and various state-level investments into local water infrastructure and utilities.
Learning From Mistakes to Increase Future Resiliency
The water industry has learned that resiliency is everything and that relying on the “status quo” can only take a business or utility so far. While Covid-19 surprised many industries with its longevity and ability to disrupt, it has also revealed weak spots that can easily be remedied by embracing technological advances such as automation. As more and more utilities and organizations seek interoperable systems that can monitor and test for water quality, they’re finding an entire digital landscape ripe for solving problems and streamlining processes.