Stuart Newstead: Water Control Room Evolution

July 2nd, 2014

Water & Sewerage Journal, May 2014

Alarm Management to Integrated Control

The role of the control room is changing as water companies centralise their functions and invest in developing their capabilities. Their traditional role was mainly reactive, involving handling alarms, taking customer calls, and keeping field staff informed of incidents which were then managed locally. Control rooms could only exercise basic control over the potable water distribution network.. The functions of local control rooms was basically a “non-ownership catch & pass” system whereby simple alarms were passed on to field operatives. Typically this could involve handling 8,000 alarms per day and monitoring of as many as 54,000 points of information from 3,000 sites.
The focus now is on smart alarm systems that use thresholds and integrated algorithmic based predictive capabilities to allow control rooms to maintain and optimise network operations, and to prioritise responses to incidents. This has required significant upgrades to IT and telemetry systems in order to import all DMA monitored operating data into the control rooms’ alarm management systems. Using SCADA systems control room staff can be presented with visual representations on MIMICs. Smart alarm management techniques and improved risk assessment systems have reduced the typical numbers of alarms to 1,000 per day.
With particular emphasis on the lead measure of “burst mains” investment has focussed on having control room capabilities in place to manage network pressures. The goal has been to “get ahead of the game”. The improved telemetry systems should enable a control room be aware of a network event before it receives a customer call. Thereby, the time available for decision making and event control can be increased so as to allow for a proactive restoration response. Other initiatives have involved learning from network failures. In particular, instituting network-wide proactive measures based upon generic design faults, and monitoring data that reveal early signs of asset failure through process condition factors and operating regimes. Important aspects have been optimisation of DMAs, implementation of calm network control systems, and adoption of a philosophy of asset restoration rather than emergency repair. Pressure transients can lead to network failures that can be minimised by the use of variable speed drives. But not all changes have been technical. Improvements in management systems have also played their part. Restoration plans have been jointly developed by field and network control staff and dedicated restoration training has been implemented. The training can be carried out on bespoke rigs that can mimic the network and show how pressure transients can be created, for example by operating a valve. These developments have been implemented to meet customer expectations and reductions in regulatory response times for water supply interruption from 12hrs to 6 hrs and now to 3hrs within tighter constraints on capital funding.

But the journey does not stop here. The future involves evolving control rooms so that they have the capabilities to take ownership of their water supply and waste water discharge networks and provide support on a 24/7 basis to their customers and to the front-line business by helping to guide and co-ordinate a more proactive response to alerts of system changes and anomalies. In order to achieve this control rooms will require systems that allow real-time networks monitoring across all facilities ranging from atmospheric precipitation to supply of drinking water to the household tap and the discharge of waste waters from sewage treatment works. Moreover, the vision is for control rooms to not only be centres for incident management, but also for the optimisation of asset performance and the promotion of capital schemes. Optimisation will extend beyond managing network supply events to include minimisation of energy use and chemicals consumption in accordance with company business plans.

This evolution involves a move away from the traditional model of local knowledge to an informed centralised function within control rooms. Here should be sufficient data, knowledge and expertise to make decisions that can secure improvements across all field facilities. Control rooms of the future should be able to pro-actively manage water supply and waste water treatment networks. The evolutionary steps necessary to achieving these capabilities involve changes in technology, development of management systems and the establishment of personnel competencies.

Technological changes include the automation of assets, greater visibility of real time asset performance data, smart influencing of asset design, the setting and maintenance of asset performance standards, and a greater understanding of the opportunities that developments in instrumentation, control and automation can offer.  Management systems will need to develop in recognition of the changing role of control room personnel. Control rooms will be responsible for driving compliance with company objectives and regulatory requirements over a wide range of performance indicators for the water supply and waste water treatment networks. This will require close and effective working of control room and field personnel. Control room requirements for personnel competencies will increase. Their overall role will include administration, incident management, process control, and staff management on technical issues. Sandwiched as control rooms will be between head office business planners and field staff their personnel will need to have multi-faceted skills that equip them to have the necessary confidence and technical understandings that command all-round authority and respect.

One of the ways in which control rooms are addressing these challenges is to share information and best practice through membership of the Water Control Room Forum (WCRF). The WCRF is Special Interest Group (SIG) within the Sensors for Water Interest Group (SWIG). The WCRF meets formally twice a year to discuss particular topics and visit control rooms. Where appropriate it extends invitations to representatives form other service industries, academia, consultancies and technological businesses that have a common interest in the challenges outlined above

Stuart Newstead
SWIG Director & WCRF Manager
Email: contact@w-crf.org.uk