Real-time monitoring and control for a water, wastewater operation

Water and wastewater operations improved with an industrial radio with messaging queuing telemetry transport (MQTT) for faster communication and new supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) software. A system integrator used the wireless system to help improve reliability and reporting and reduce risk.

By Crayton White January 12, 2020

A water and wastewater system upgrade included new real-time wireless communications for improved management of physical assets and personnel. System integrators helped install modern supervisory control and data acquisition (SCADA) software without having to rip and replace everything in the field. Benefits include eliminating time consuming manual analysis and achieving significant efficiency and time-management gains.

The town of Sylvan Lake in Alberta, Canada, is home to 15,000 citizens and attracts more than 1.5 million tourists from around Alberta each year.

The 9-sq-mi town has seven water stations and 12 wastewater pumping stations that comprise its water infrastructure operations. Half of the town sits at lake level. As a result, wastewater must be pumped from lower elevations to higher elevations. Water reservoirs require continuous monitoring to ensure chemical injections stay in check and the water supply is safe. The need to automate this critical infrastructure and to upgrade the communications network has increased as the town and its tourism grow.

Contact Automation Inc., a system integrator located in Western Canada, has provided maintenance and network management services for the town’s existing water infrastructure SCADA and communications system for the last four years. The company troubleshoots hardware communications and sensor failures and have managed network footprint expansions as new water and wastewater facilities online. The company was also aware of the limitations and daily operational challenges caused by the city’s aging system.

Sylvan’s SCADA network was originally designed as a serial radio network. With legacy equipment almost 20 years old and numerous configurations, the system was inflexible and didn’t allow users to reliably communicate with remote stations.

Because of the system’s limitations, town workers had to drive to each field location to monitor and report on the system repeatedly throughout the day. Town officials recognized its requirements for the existing system exceeded what was possible and needed to find a new cost-effective solution that integrated Smart Utility Technology to keep their entire operation safe and compliant, while accommodating growth and future automation technology upgrades.

Needs and project pain points

The town’s existing communications system posed a number of ongoing challenges. Over the last five years, the communications network had become unreliable. It was plagued with system-wide errors due to hardware failures.

Since all station inspection reporting had to be done manually, historical operational data was not easily searchable or accessible. While each station had alarms, they were limited in growth and expandability and town officials knew they couldn’t continue to manage the system via remote callouts. If a pump went down — even for a few minutes — it could result in an environmental disaster.

Despite our best efforts to keep up with its maintenance, the current system was showing every bit of its age. The city’s growing need for automated reporting, real-time monitoring and centralized control of this critical water infrastructure kicked off a two-year effort to modernize its communications infrastructure to meet current needs as well as allow the scalability to handle future requirements.

The town no longer trusted their current communications system to monitor and manage their critical utility infrastructure. The growing number of system-wide errors, manual processes and old technology was hampering their goal of achieving a fully automated system.

Sylvan Lake also wanted an asset management, enterprise resource planning (ERP) system and other outside resources as part of their overall network upgrade. After years of planning and securing funding approval, the initiative to transform the town’s water management communications system began in March 2018.

While the town considered a SCADA software upgrade at first, the plan quickly evolved to a complete rebuild of the entire system. After evaluating numerous technologies, the system integrator involved recommended industrial radios integrated with messaging queuing telemetry transport (MQTT).

The town was running a poll/response serial SCADA system, and over the last 20 years, each field station came in and was programmed by a different person, which meant the configuration differed from site to site. The goal was standardize the system.

The industrial radio, coupled with MQTT, would solve the town’s alarming and reporting issues and create the standardization needed across each field station. The publish/subscribe, or Pub/Sub, architecture provides granular data to anyone on the network and the proven ruggedness of the platform provided a reliable home for applications that place analytics and intelligence alongside remote assets and provided secure wireless data transmission over long distances and application deployment.

Adding MQTT at the edge made the field stations smarter while keeping the system’s overall footprint and bandwidth requirements small. Typically, the costs to purchase and maintain the system go up if more hardware is put in.

The implementation provided the ability to migrate and upgrade each station to achieve the Internet of Things (IoT) at the edge by replacing the radio hardware. No other hardware had to be deployed to the field. All that’s needed to monitor pressure on a water line is a sensor with a radio. The field system has been simplified, communications and data accuracy has improved, and infrastructure costs were lowered by making the edge smarter.

Results and ROI

To date, all seven freshwater pumping stations have been upgraded, as well as a new remote monitoring station. A new centralized control center was established at the main reservoir on the south edge of town.

Sylvan Lake, thanks to the upgraded network, went from having only one monitoring station in a remote location to managing the entire network in real-time from multiple locations and via mobile all at the same time. The primary maintenance office is located downtown and remains the heart of its core operations. From this location, they can easily view the entire system on multiple screens.

The old system required round-robin poll/response requests to each station to report system data could take five minutes to accomplish — longer if a communications issue occurred. This delay was limiting their ability to see live data and remotely monitor the entire system effectively. In some cases, they were missing data spikes that could indicate an issue before it became an active alarm. The old system limited them to responding to alarms instead of being able to take a more proactive approach to station maintenance.

All field stations operate independently with MQTT. If one site has an issue, the rest of the system won’t be taken down with it. System-wide updates and alarm data are now available in seconds. Structured query language (SQL) historical database development has now allowed for simple data reporting and analysis. Year-end compliance reporting has also been transformed, eliminating time consuming manual analysis and achieving significant efficiency and time-management gains.

The Sylvan Lake water operations management system and the generated data is reliable. Those working with the system can communicate with the team from a central location, have reduced the points of failure and eliminated the need to drive from station to station to check and monitor the infrastructure multiple times a day. The communications reliability of field radios is nearly 100%.

Work will continue to bring the town’s 12 wastewater operations online. Even with that, the network will have the capacity to grow and expand as needed.

Crayton White, systems integrator and PLC programmer, Contact Automation. Edited by Chris Vavra, associate editor, Control Engineering, CFE Media and Technology,


Keywords: wireless networks, water and wastewater, MQTT

The town of Sylvan Lake in Alberta, Canada, wanted to improve its water and wastewater operations.

The system integrator they partnered with recommended using an industrial radio with messaging queuing telemetry transport (MQTT) for faster communication.

The integrator built a reliable system that gave the town information quickly and reduced the risk of major problems.

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What benefits could your company receive from an industrial radio with MQTT?

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Original content can be found at Control Engineering.

Author Bio: Crayton White, systems integrator and PLC programmer, Contact Automation