Historic Winter Weather Puts Smart Water to the Test

How the City of Jacksonville, Texas, Avoided A Major Water Crisis

By Trey Overman

Early 2021 followed a year of unprecedented events for people around the globe. For those residing in Texas, the theme continued with a historic winter storm in February that paralyzed the entire state.

Freezing conditions down to single digits put the entire state’s infrastructure to the test, leaving many cities and citizens without electricity and water. At a time when staying home had become the norm, utility reliability and resilience were more critical than ever.

Faced with these extraordinary circumstances, the City of Jacksonville, Texas, quickly realized its decision in 2019 to replace aging infrastructure with a smart utility network was more crucial than initially predicted. 

A State of Emergency

With atypical temperatures well below 10 degrees Fahrenheit, many Texans were ill-equipped for what unfolded—total loss of power and devastating infrastructure damage caused by the cold snap.

“We were pumping nearly double what the water consumption was normally, we were losing almost more water than we could produce, and we were getting ourselves into some critical situations,” said former Jacksonville City Manager Greg Smith.

Prepared for the Storm

Jacksonville’s Water and Sewer Utilities team, however, was well prepared for the winter weather emergency. Using the Sensus ally water meter along with its two-way FlexNet communication network, the team ran near real-time usage reports and discovered some customers were losing up to 28,000 gallons of water per day, compared to normal daily consumption of 100 gallons. The smart technology allowed the city to remotely shut off water distribution to residential customers and protect their homes against flood damage from burst pipes.

“Without a shadow of a doubt, the system we installed saved us millions of gallons of water,” said Smith. “It certainly turned out to be one of the biggest advantages we had during the storm.”

Another significant benefit of the ally meter was the built-in functionality to remotely identify pressure points around the city which allowed the team to isolate water main and service line breaks. They identified and addressed approximately 65 issues—half of which were discovered by data from the smart water meters.

“Once we located and turned off the largest leak, we were able to get pressure back,” said Smith. “Without the pressure data, we would not have been able to respond or isolate leaks as quickly as we did.”

In the span of just 72 hours, the City of Jacksonville was able to identify damage, respond to its customers and repair its infrastructure.

Near Real-Time Data Aids Recovery

Not only did the smart utility network allow for near real-time response to residents and business owners of Jacksonville, but once the city began to thaw, the system’s data helped resume normal water service. 

The city’s utility team also used analytics to quantify storm-related damage versus typical water use, resulting in the development of an amnesty policy for those impacted by high water bills.

“Even after the storm, the benefits of our smart water technology prevailed,” said Smith. “Because we had such precise data, the city was able to set a policy and understand the financial impact to the city and residents of the winter storm.”

Customers who signed up for the online Sensus Customer Portal could see for themselves their daily water consumption and if it corresponded to any issues caused by the deep freeze.

Just two years before this wicked winter weather, the City of Jacksonville knew it needed a modernization effort with the majority of its meters nearing a 20-year life span. While the purpose of the system upgrade was not initially to address storm resilience, the remotely managed network more than proved its value when inclement weather covered their service territory. It allowed the city to quickly collect data, locate and assess storm-related damage, and respond before it caused further damage.

“Without the Xylem system, the entire city could have been without water, and our response would have been totally different,” said Smith. “The system paid for itself in just that one week.”

A Win for Jacksonville

As a result of providing exemplary customer service during a winter weather emergency, the City of Jacksonville earned the 2021 Texas Municipal League (TML) Excellence Award, which recognizes municipalities for innovative problem-solving, excellent management and high levels of service.

Business as Usual

Throughout the past two years, people across the world have become more dependent on reliable infrastructure to perform their daily tasks from anywhere they choose. The City of Jacksonville’s response to an emerging crisis allowed area residents to quickly return to business as usual, resulting in renewed trust among its customers.

Trey Overman is the director of global residential water product management at Sensus, a Xylem brand. Overman has four years of experience in the water industry and holds undergraduate degrees from Appalachian State University and an MBA from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 

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