COMMENTARY: When it comes to water utility asset management, data is power

By Michele Samuels

Crisis management and emergency response are terms all too familiar to water utilities. As providers of one of our most essential customer services, utility operators have a proven track record in pragmatic problem-solving to ensure continuity for their communities. But as new threats emerge, from public health risks to climate change impacts, utilities are realizing that legacy approaches to emergency planning are not adequate. And with that, the focus is shifting from emergency response to emergency preparedness.

Utilities today are facing a myriad of complex and interrelated challenges. The pandemic has pushed budgets to the brink at a time when challenges like water scarcity and flooding are intensifying, regulations are tightening, and customer expectations are rising – all adding to the pressure on assets and the people who operate them. Utility operators know that now more than ever, they need to plan for tomorrow but they can struggle to embed risk mitigation and resilience building in their day-to-day strategies.

For many – probably the majority – emergency planning still happens in a vacuum. Faced with so many immediate challenges, utilities can often slip back to a reactive, ‘it’s-only-a-matter-of-time’ approach, rather than actively mitigating or avoiding crises. This is understandable – but unsustainable.

There is a Better Way

Cash-strapped utilities need a pragmatic approach to risk mitigation. Strategic asset management is the bedrock to support this. Asset Management is a powerful, integrated, multi-departmental approach, which combines ways of working, tools and technologies to help utilities achieve asset reliability and meet service levels for the lowest asset life cycle cost.

Building resilience against the threats of tomorrow starts with getting a handle on the current picture. Asset management enhances network visibility by enabling utility operators to understand what assets they have, their location and specifications and crucially, their condition. This in turn enables utilities to better plan maintenance, rehabilitation, and renewal of their assets, pinpointing interventions that optimize operating and capital expenses. Asset management also supports regulatory compliance and sets utilities up to demonstrate leadership in sustainable stewardship.

Data is Power

Asset management gives us the full picture we need to shift from status quo, reactive planning to real risk management. Often, utilities make investment decisions in the dark without truly understanding current operating costs and future operational needs. Operators might default to decision-making based on what has been done before rather than a real-time understanding of asset needs. This leads to a poor return on investment or inadequate funding for the job at hand. Asset management empowers us through data to create a clear correlation between asset need and funding asks. The result is smart, insight-led investment decisions that maximize efficiency and support resiliency. And over time, these productive outcomes reinforce a utility’s business case to unlock new funding.

This is the beauty of strategic asset management; it is a key that unlocks operational efficiency and emergency preparedness. It brings greater precision to emergency planning – helping utilities to shift from reactive to proactive emergency preparedness. It is the pragmatic approach utilities need to manage challenges today and tomorrow.

Asset Management in Action

Utilities need to take a practical approach to emergency planning, accepting that they cannot fix everything. This starts with understanding the asset base and risk profile of each asset.

  • An asset inventory is critical to any asset management plan. It may seem basic, but many utilities lose track of the assets they have and their related attributes. To establish a baseline, capture essential details for all assets – model, serial number, date of installation, operating specifications, relevant physical dimensions, etc. – all critical data points when looking at ultimate asset performance and making predictions. The first inventory is a resource-intensive task, but it pays dividends.
  • The initial inventory should be fed into an asset management system or database. Effective asset management is grounded in good process. The most common pitfall is not embedding the process to continuously capture data.
  • Next, prioritize assets by risk profile. This involves firstly understanding the consequence of failure. For example, considering cost implications like premiums for emergency repairs and environmental impacts such as pollution or traffic delays that may arise in the event of failure. Second, assess the likelihood of failure through a condition assessment; or for those utilities further along on the digital journey, they can apply their operating and maintenance data to predict asset failure. Utilities that do not yet have access to such data can engage a partner to support the assessment. Together, these factors inform smart prioritization that brings rigor to investment decisions.
  • Build an investment strategy. Armed with data, apply investment strategically to best manage the greatest risks. Utilities are empowered to build a data-driven business case – ‘If I invest $X in this asset/asset class, I can help to avoid $Y in accumulated cost if this asset should fail.’  

For true financial sustainability, utility budgeting has to be driven by asset needs. By understanding maintenance and operational needs, utilities can optimize operations and redirect savings to maintenance planning and repairs. This sets utilities on the road to proactive maintenance and ultimately, to predictive maintenance. When it comes to operational efficiency and emergency preparedness, it does not need to be a case of either/or, asset management sets utilities up for a win-win.

Michele Samuels serves as global practice manager, asset performance, at Xylem. She has held leadership roles in the water industry ranging from utility management to consulting at various organizations including CH2M Hill (now Jacobs), Stantec, The Regional Municipality of York, and EMA. Most recently, Samuels was asset management practice lead for Eastern Canada at AECOM.

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