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Software Drives Water System Improvements

Civil Solutions: New tools expand capabilities of surveying and civil engineering to bring important data into all design aspects.


The quest to deliver safe, reliable drinking water has challenged cities and other utility owners for decades. With growing populations and a finite supply of water on the planet, water providers are constantly looking for better ways to design, build, and operate water systems.

Engineers and other professionals are employing a variety of tools to help tackle this challenge. As software has become more advanced and data more accessible, water professionals have become better equipped to analyze and design water systems. The tools have helped owners address both water quantity and quality issues.


Water Distribution Analysis

One of the key tasks in analyzing water distribution systems is evaluating system capacities. The process has been aided in recent years by more visually oriented software, said Earl Schneider, Water Group vice-president at consultant Mott MacDonald. “Hydraulic modeling by nature is visual and spatial. You need an interface where you can see what you’re modeling.”

Mott MacDonald uses OpenFlows WaterGEMS from Bentley Systems to analyze system capacities, identify potential problem areas, and plan capital improvements. Pipe sizes, lengths, and other characteristics are entered into a computer model and various conditions simulated, such as fire flows during peak domestic demand periods. The software determines pressures and flows at various locations in the system based on the simulated conditions, helping owners make decisions about where upgrades are needed.



OpenFlows WaterGEMS can be used to evaluate pressures and flows in water distribution systems. Image source: Mott MacDonald.


OpenFlows WaterGEMS can be run as a stand-alone product or integrated with other software such as MicroStation, AutoCAD, and ArcInfo. Users can display aerial mapping as background imagery or access CAD and GIS data, depending on the project needs and data availability.

While pipe network analysis is not new, the ease and sophistication of digital model building has evolved significantly in recent years. With the growth of GIS data, users can often access data such as pipe geometry and topography digitally instead of manually typing in system information from maps and records, said Tom Walski, senior product manager and fellow with Bentley Systems. “You can essentially push a button to grab information from a GIS and build a model,” he said.

Increased data availability has also helped improve modeling accuracy, added Walski. With many water utilities employing supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) to monitor their systems, modelers can access real-time data to “calibrate the model and verify that the system is running the way it's supposed to be running,” he said. The improved accuracy can help identify customers who might be out of water due to a pipe break and guide location of isolation valves.



Distribution models can produce real-time operational results, such as identifying customers who are out of water due to a pipe break. Image source: Bentley Systems.


Addressing Water Quality

Software advancements have also helped engineers address water quality issues. Mott MacDonald recently used computer modeling to help a client determine how to treat a water system contaminated with per- and polyfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS). Based on hydraulic modeling and a life-cycle cost analysis, engineers determined that the client could significantly reduce treatment costs by centralizing treatment and reducing the number of groundwater entry points. “The hydraulic model was needed to evaluate if this would result in any significant changes in the system related to customer pressures, fire hydrant flows, tank emptying and filling patterns, and general system operation,” said Schneider. 

After optimizing the solution with hydraulic modeling, engineers developed detailed designs using Autodesk Revit, which allowed the team to design three-dimensional models. “[The BIM approach] allowed the client to have a better understanding of the layouts for the new granular activated carbon (GAC) treatment vessels and the extensive piping and valving,” said Schneider. “The client can visualize the overall facility layout in more detail, and determine if there is adequate room for operation and maintenance work in the future.”



BIM 3D improves design for PFAS removal using GAC vessels. Image source: Mott MacDonald.


Replacing Lead Pipes 

In another environmentally focused project, Mott MacDonald is helping a client manage replacement of lead water pipes. Using a combination of Esri’s ArcGIS, Survey 123, and specially developed software, Mott MacDonald developed tools and database repositories to assist in field data collection. “We use utility information with GIS demographic layers to perform machine learning analysis and better determine where lead service lines are,” said Schneider. The machine learning uses GIS information such as census and zoning data, parcel information, and construction history to help identify where lead service lines are located. 



Replacement of lead pipes is being guided by new software tools. Image source: Mott MacDonald.


Advanced Operations and Other Trends 

After improvements are installed, owners and engineers are also finding new ways to integrate design and construction information with operations. Bentley’s Walski sees a growing interest in managing the “whole life cycle” of water infrastructure. This may include building digital twins that contain pipe attributes and other data that can help operators with decisions, such as when to close a valve and what the system impact will be.

Schneider sees similar trends on the horizon. “The next generation of water system engineers and utility operators will use digital twins as a standard business practice, and will have much improved business processes and workflows to maintain and update digital twins,” he said. As an example, he cited how an owner might click on an asset in a digital model and review work order histories and other maintenance data.

Schneider also sees water systems analysis becoming more cloud-based rather than desktop-based. As more cities go to AMI (automated metering infrastructure), cloud-based systems will become more popular,” he said. “You can get demand information in real time and get more sophisticated information on how water is being used in the system. There’s a lot of power to that.”

To aid use of cloud-based data, Bentley recently introduced WaterSight, which combines SCADA, GIS, hydraulic modeling, and customer information into a single, interoperable dashboard. Access to cloud-based data from various sources enables a utility-wide view into the detection of critical system and individual asset performance information. Operators can monitor flow, pressure, and water quality conditions throughout a system.


Days Ahead

While the molecular structure of water has not changed, clearly the tools for managing water infrastructure have progressed markedly in recent years. AEC professionals working in water-related fields would be wise to monitor these developments and be prepared for more in the days ahead.

If there's something about civil technology you'd like to know more about, please drop me an email.


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Andrew G. Roe

Cadalyst contributing editor Andrew G. Roe is a registered civil engineer and president of AGR Associates. He is author of Using Visual Basic with AutoCAD, published by Autodesk Press. He can be reached at editors@cadalyst.com.

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