Water Technology

Xylem Visits the 2019 PNCWA Conference

By: Jenna Mariano, Business Development Manager

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This year’s Pacific Northwest Clean Water Association (PNCWA) Annual Conference & Exhibition was held on September 8-11 at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, OR. PNCWA is one of 75 global Member Associations that collectively form a federation of like-purpose organizations called the Water Environment Federation (WEF). This year’s conference had over 1,000 attendees and 134 exhibitors from all over the Pacific Northwest. There were multiple tracks in the technical sessions that highlighted different areas of the water industry. For example, the Utility Management Committee had fantastic and engaging discussions on the impact of water conservation and climate change on wastewater treatment and utilities. There were also great sessions from the Leadership, Social Equity, and Workforce Development Committee. I specifically enjoyed the session on team building and the Five P’s of Leadership (Problem, Person, People, Process, and Purpose). Overall, this was a very successful conference with a great attendance from both the public and private sector of the water industry. I look forward to attending future conferences.

Link to conference website: https://pcwm.memberclicks.net/

Introducing our Clients: Carson City and South Bend

By: Sabrina Strauss, Office Manager

Xylem-Digital Solutions kicked off Hidden Revenue Locator projects with a number of new clients in 2019. Two of the recent deployments include  City of Carson City and the City of South Bend. We will introduce both of these innovative utilities in this post. 

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Introducing Carson City Water Division

Carson City is located in an arid region of Northern Nevada. Carson City’s water distribution system consists of 250 miles of water mains, 4,200 fire hydrants, 32 groundwater wells, 15 storage tanks, and 16 pressure zones, according to the local Water Division. “The distribution division maintains the system’s water mains, valves and hydrants, and the City's portion of the service line, [...] including the water meter.” Carson City’s Water Division oversees the city’s water production, distribution and metering, as well as maintaining the fire hydrants and infrastructure. 

The city’s overall goal in working with Xylem is to locate revenue deficiency across its commercial and industrial meter fleet. In addition, Xylem  will help the city with meter asset management through data driven insights and recommendations specifically on the systematic replacement of its under-performing meters. Furthermore, another goal is to also determine the potential missing revenue from each of the under-performing meters, which is estimated to be worth 1% of Carson City's 2017 water and sewer gross operating revenue.

The Xylem’s Revenue Assurance group recommended their award-winning solution Hidden Revenue Locator (HRL) to Carson City to use to work towards these goals of the Water Division. HRL is a tool which delivers improved predictions for utility meter issue identification through utility gathered data and as ongoing and automated  data integration which is easy to scale across multiple meters. The HRL optimizes operational workflows for the City due to its easy to access online platform and ongoing, regular reports for prioritizing field activities, as well as helping with meter asset management. 

Xylem also provides program guidance and insights on total revenue and volume gains, which will be delivered by the Revenue Assurance team throughout a 12-month long program, with a dataset of 1,700 meters, and including a pre/post revenue impact report. The dashboard for this project will be launched in Fall 2019. 

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Introducing South Bend Water Works

Located in southern Indiana, South Bend Water Works ‘solely utilizes groundwater to serve more than 112,000 customers. There are nine well fields which can produce water to be treated before making its way to homes and businesses via 550+ miles of water main’. 

The City’s goal is it to gain a better understanding of the performance of its water meters using a performance-based approach. For this purpose, identifying and addressing water and revenue loss at and behind the customer meter, and closely tracking each meters’ revenue impact, is necessary. Furthermore, the City plans to use the Hidden Revenue Locator to better understand where its system water losses are coming from by better estimating its apparent water losses. Currently, the City has a regular replacement program for all of its meters and by using HRL, the goal is instead to focus these replacements on only meters with issues which will save both time and effort while also recovering revenue in the future. 

Similar to the Carson City project, South Bend is planning to use the Hidden Revenue Locator to achieve their goals. South Bend will receive a one-time, Hidden Revenue Locator report of meter issues for 10,000 manual and AMR meters. Xylem’s San Francisco team will conduct  a one-time data integration and analysis for all provided data back to 2013. The dashboard is targeted to launch in November 2019.


Cyber Security and the 4th Annual Water Data Summit: 5 Takeaways on Open Water Data

By: Victor Miao, Software Engineer

Water’s greatest minds coalesced from all over the world at the 4th Annual Water Data Summit on August 22 and 23, at the University of California, Davis. Hosted by the California Data Collaborative, water experts from all sectors gathered to discuss and collaborate on water data. With one of the main themes being California’s AB 1755 (the Open and Transparent Water Data Act), speakers addressed the current state of water data and its challenges. Here are some of the main takeaways.

Summit panelists discuss economic impacts of irrigation reduction

Summit panelists discuss economic impacts of irrigation reduction

Open Data

California Governor Gavin Newsom’s Citizenville describes one example outcome of open data: the efforts of a single programmer mapping public police data directly led to reform and behavioral changes. Similarly, one speaker cited public road data as the initial spark for Google Map. Hoping to invoke similar ingenuity, many water experts believe that open water data will empower people to make better-informed decisions regarding sustainable water management.

Jesper Elkjær Christensen, Senior Advisor of the Water Technology Alliance of the Consulate General of Denmark, presented an enlightening case study on the benefits of open water data in Denmark. Public, private, and academic organizations have long collaborated on public groundwater data, mapping groundwater since 1999 and creating other tools to help guide important water decisions. Jesper’s conclusion from Denmark’s success: “make water data useful, public, standardized, and collaborative”.

Denmark’s publicly available and interactive groundwater maps

Denmark’s publicly available and interactive groundwater maps

Establish Trust (in the Internet of Water)

The Internet of Water (IoW) is a project started at Duke University, designed to enable open water data to help guide sustainable water management. One example goal depicted the ability to look up local water quality on Google. According to IoW’s co-founder and panelist Martin Doyle, most of the breakthrough water technology already exists in AMI and improved water sensors. However, the issue remains in spreading these technologies as the industry standard. Many organizations still maintain legacy infrastructure and data.

On the same IoW panel and from a different perspective, Deven Upadhyay represented the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. He discussed his vision of publicly accessible and trusted water data for every locale. However, he cited trust and cyber security as the most important challenges for an open data platform. Cyber security, as another main summit topic, is covered in more detail in the section below.

No Utility Left Behind

One recurring issue of the conference addressed small water utilities that would not be able to comply with proposed open water data policies, much less be well-equipped to protect their data against cyber attacks. Hoping to address such issues, the Aspen Institute Dialogue Series convened in 2017, acting as a neutral space. The Dialogue gathered a diverse group including public and private sectors, water experts, and academics to discuss national policy, water data, and sustainable water management. Accordingly, IoW aims only for voluntary participants in producing open data, instead of focusing on influencing public policy on open data.

Water Data Needs Work

“Water and data have not been married for long,'' stated one presenter. It is a fledgling field that necessitates adopting present and newly available technology to be robust, secure, and useful. Surprisingly, 2019 is the first year that all California water utilities were able to provide aggregate monthly water usage, and only as a direct result of an emergency measure due California’s 2011-2017 drought. 

Joaquin Esquivel, Chair of the California State Water Board, presented similar findings on the state-level. Citing both his current position and his previous position as Director of Information and Technology under California Senator Barbara Boxer, he acknowledged that while California is progressive, its data infrastructure still needs much work.

Open Data Works

As open data helped empower everyday people to innovate, open source tools and software aim to do similar good. The California Data Collaborative hosts a plethora of open source tools and software on their GitHub, such as an evapotranspiration estimator, real-time snow water estimator, and real-time reservoir visualization.

Similarly, many other organizations presented open source projects or research on open data:

  • Sacramento State’s open source tool for mapping groundwater quality, designed to help water managers identify disadvantaged communities with contaminated groundwater

  • One Stanford University PhD candidate’s research on Google search trends appears to show a correlation between media coverage of the 2011-2017 California drought and state-wide voluntary water usage reduction. Mandatory water restrictions seemed to correlate less with water conservation.

  • University of California, Irvine presented a disturbing recent trend of increasingly unsafe water in rural and low-income areas, especially in Oklahoma and Texas. In 2015, 9% of water systems in 2015 violating the Safe Water Act and affecting 21 million people.

  • FlowWest showcased their open source software such as a salmon life cycle model, supporting the efforts of the Central Valley Project Improvement Act to protect fish and wildlife.

Cyber Security

Online privacy and security have become increasingly important topics in more recent years, and for good reason. Data breaches and ransomware seem to occur far too often. However, the rising public awareness should hold agencies more accountable for our private and sensitive data. Indeed, cyber security cemented itself as a keystone topic at the 4th Annual Water Data Summit as well. This year, speakers at the summit helped us better understand the full stack of data security.

Your data is in good hands…

Despite, or perhaps because of, the recent prevalence and awareness of data breaches, many organizations have been actively preparing for and defending against the worst. Listed here are a few cyber security best-practices brought up during the summit.

Cyber Security panel. Pictured (L-R): William Johnson, David Wegman, Rocky Smith

Cyber Security panel. Pictured (L-R): William Johnson, David Wegman, Rocky Smith


William Johnson, Information System Division Manager at East Bay Municipal Utility District (EBMUD), outlined their best practices as a business-to-consumer entity that uses consumer data:

  • Defend against infiltration: EBMUD regularly performs penetration assessments both internally as well as through third party auditors, in order to find and fortify any weak points.

  • Defend against exfiltration: employees must abide by clear protocols (e.g. no sending cleartext via email, correctly storing and transferring data, etc.) and participate in random phishing tests that automatically enroll them into anti-phishing programs if they fail.

  • Cloud security: EBMUD employs a cloud-first approach, knowing that Amazon and other cloud providers often employ the best specialist teams in cyber security that other organizations generally cannot match with on-site solutions.

David Wegman, our very own CTO at Valor Water Analytics (a Xylem brand), presented Valor’s guidelines as a business-to-business agency that receives data from other businesses:

  • Minimize data: sometimes, clients send Valor extraneous data and personally identifiable information that we do not want nor ask for. Valor does not store this data, so that there is no possibility of such sensitive information leaking.

  • Grant as little access as necessary: users are only given access to what they need, and in the form of temporary access tokens that expire shortly afterwards. This reduces the damage of a potential breach by forcibly limiting its duration.

  • Layering approach: in addition to minimizing data, blocking unwanted visitors with a firewall, and granting only temporary access, Valor encrypts sensitive data so that it cannot be traced back to its origins. This layered security addresses the worst case scenario, lessening the impact of any stage of a potential breach.

  • Cloud security: Valor shares EBMUD’s sentiments on the cloud, understanding that an on-site solution would likely be less secure and more difficult to maintain.

Rocky Smith, Business Solutions Architect at Cisco, and Internet of Things (IoT) expert, stated, “You have not been attacked yet, are being attacked, or in the aftermath of an attack”. With this mindset, Cisco prepares for every scenario, designing the best possible outcome.

  • Establish perimeters everywhere: extend firewalls and permissions barriers frequently - even between internal tools, to mitigate potential breaches.

  • Minimize data: even if IoT or other connected devices are compromised, they should not have any sensitive data to leak, only anonymous or useless strings of numbers.

  • Properly back up data: ransomware only has leverage against an organization when, by definition, they hold hostage something valuable. With proper backups, an agency protects itself by being able to recover their valuable data without the need to comply with a malicious entity’s demands.

...as long as it is prioritized

Given these industry-standard practices, one might ask “why are there breaches at all?”. Frankly, organizations need to understand and prioritize security in the first place to even have these measures in place. Instead, some organizations may be far too small, too large and slow-moving, or simply unaware of security threats. Fortunately for everyone, we do have some brilliant individuals and unbiased organizations hoping to tackle some of these issues.

Related Links

California Data Collaborative

http://californiadatacollaborative.org/

https://github.com/California-Data-Collaborative

Internet of Water

https://internetofwater.org/

Aspen Dialogue on Sustainable Water Infrastructure

https://www.aspeninstitute.org/programs/energy-and-environment-program-3/water/

Denmark’s Groundwater Maps and Data

https://eng.geus.dk/products-services-facilities/data-and-maps/groundwater-maps-and-data/ 

Sacramento State - California Groundwater Contamination Risk Index

https://www.owp.csus.edu/grid/

FlowWest

http://www.flowwest.com/

https://github.com/FlowWest


Large Meter Testing: Where are utilities today? AWWA CA-NV Meter Committee Workshop; August 20, 2019

By: Kristine Gali, Technical Program Manager, and Heidi Smith, Global Product Manager

The American Water Works Association nonprofit was founded in 1881 with a focus on providing education and training opportunities for drinking water professionals. Since its inception, the association has grown to roughly 50,000 members, multiple sections across the US, and multiple committee’s within each section. The California-Nevada Section of AWWA held its Summer Meeting and Workshop on August 20, 2019 with a focus on large meter testing, the importance of regular testing, methods of conducting field and bench tests, and a panel on how to develop a testing program.

 With emerging water regulations across the US, utilities are becoming increasingly focused on annual water audits. Even more importantly, utilities are focusing on how to gather sufficient data to most accurately complete these water audits. The water that enters the water distribution system should equal the amount of water either consumed, lost, or exported. On the other hand, without accurate metering, it is impossible to confirm how much water is associated with each of these variables of the equation. Having a regular testing program for large meters helps utilities monitor not only production meters, but some of their highest revenue generating meters as well and ultimately hone in on accurate water audit inputs.

Reasons and consequences for large meter failures

Michael Simpson from M.E. Simpson Co. shared 7 reasons for large meter failures and their consequences:

-       age,

-       mechanical wear and tear,

-       corrosion,

-       mineral buildup,

-       fouling due to debris,

-       misuse or operation outside of the meters range, and

-       inadequate plumbing before and/or after the meter

The consequences of these potential failures include inaccurate billing of customers, lost revenue, over and under feeding of chemicals (in plant meters only), inaccurate annual reports and usage estimates, and an overall loss of control.

Meters will naturally age and experience wear and tear. Depending on water quality, other factors such as corrosion, mineral buildup, and fouling may ultimately affect meters as well. Finally, the installation configuration and operation of the meter itself can compromise the accuracy of meter reads. Due to the variety of issue types, the life expectancy of large meters can be difficult to predict without closely monitoring the meters as well as the quality of water running through them over their lifetime.

Simpson recommends that utilities test and calibrate their large meters annually. A survey of the largest US utilities also found that testing of large meters occurred on an annual basis (AWWA, M6, pg 58). Testing should be conducted using a certified test meter or a pitot rod. It should be noted that testing of the 4 to 20 mA signal between a meter head and the SCADA system is not considered a valid test. 

What is a Pitot Test?

The pitot test is a common field testing method which measures differential flow pressure to determine flow velocity and ultimately flow volume (i.e. Q=VA) within a pipe. The pitot tube is inserted into the live pipe to determine the flow profile across the entire inner diameter of the pipe. Since the flow equation depends on the cross sectional area of flow, it is important to carefully measure the inner diameter of the pipe such as with a Polcon Pipe Caliper. It should also be noted that various pipe obstructions such as valves and elbows can alter the flow profile, therefore it is important to take pitot measurements on a straight line of pipe and at multiple depths within the pipe to ensure the most accurate flow volume can be determined. Furthermore, since flows may vary throughout the day, a 24-hour test is also recommended. 

Ultrasonic strap-on test meter

Strap-on ultrasonic test meters can also be used to field testing large meters in-place. The meters are minimally intrusive and similar to a pitot tube, do not disrupt flow. Measurements are calculated based on the transit-time difference method. It should be noted that the test meter should be certified and calibrated prior to use and that the manufacturer specifications for installing the test meter are followed as most require a specified amount of straight pipe both up-stream and down-stream of the test location. Furthermore, it should be noted that “once the testing begins, the testing order is from the low flows to the higher flows. Experience has shown that when most meters begin to wear or lose accuracy, it occurs at the lower flows rather than the higher” (AWWA, M6 pg 85). An advantage of ultrasonic strap-on meters is their ability to measure low flows therefore covering most, if not all flow ranges within the large meter. 

Contracted-out services

Utilities may opt to contract out services to companies such as Mars Company or to organizations such as Utah Water Research Laboratory (UWRL) for their testing and calibration of large meters. Mars Company has been offering water meter testing and technology services since 1986. At UWRL, meters and even volumes of water, can be shipped for testing in a laboratory which simulates the field piping installation. 

Large Meter Testing Practices

Portable large meter tester

Portable large meter tester

Overall, both field testing methods, pitot and ultrasonic, have their own advantages and disadvantages that should be weighed by the utility. Utilities should ensure that proper training is conducted for all personnel responsible for large meter testing. Contracted-out services offer another alternative for utilities. As stated in the AWWA M6 manual, “no phase of water-utility operation has been handled in so many different ways as the testing of water meters...The confusion and wide variance in testing procedures result from the fact that the testing of water meters in ordinary shop practice is primarily concerned with meters that are not new but that have been removed from service and repaired. Each individual has had to begin with the information available and develop testing procedures” (AWWA, M6 pg 59). Each utility much test analyze their own system and large meter individually. A panel of utility personnel from Las Vegas, San Jose Water Company, Walnut Valley, Golden State Water, and MWD revealed the following:

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  • Utilities are using a mix of in-house and contracted-out large meter testing services

  • Testing programs vary from 180 days to 4 years. Some vary the testing frequency based on the amount of revenue that the meter generates

  • For utilities with large quantities of large meters, a statistical calculator such as Roasoft, is used to determine how many of its new meters to test. 

  • Utilities are currently managing test data on spreadsheets but are looking for software to better manage their data in a central location while also allowing for integration with their customer care portals, MDM systems, and other analytics software platforms

Overall, more and more utilities are proactively testing and replacing their large meters and are uncovering significant savings. Methods for developing these programs still vary today, but new testing services, research, and analytics are continuing to be developed to help utilities uncover significant savings through more proactive approaches to meter maintenance


Getting to Know Our Summer Interns: Introducing Jordan

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This is part 3 of our intern introduction blog posts. You can read part 1 here, and part 2 here.

By: Jordan Manthey

I’m 21-year-old and from Tampa, Florida, going into my 4th year as a UC Berkeley undergraduate student, studying computer science and data science. Growing up along the Gulf of Mexico provided me with a conscious appreciation for water and consequently sparked my interest in Xylem and its mission to Solve Water. My experience as a software engineer intern here has allowed me to apply the skills I’ve learned from university to real-world problems. Though I feel that my classes have prepared me well for a career in software development, there are still several gaps between academia and professional work-- specifically around working in a team environment. Valor has done a phenomenal job bridging these gaps for me this summer, and here I’ll highlight some of my key learning experiences as an aspiring developer.

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JIRA

At best, my computer science classes have permitted one partner on projects to ensure academic integrity for all students, however, these restrictions no longer apply in the workplace with a full team of software engineers. I’ve found it incredibly useful to ask questions, take in suggestions, and learn from other people’s code in order to facilitate my own work. Valor uses an issue and project tracking software, JIRA, which reinforces this type of collaboration by allowing team members to make comments and share code snippets on any task. Because JIRA shows which people are assigned to each problem, it has been perfect in showing who to look for help when needed. I have learned that this tool is critical for software development and can highly increase team productivity when used correctly.

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DOCKER

I also quickly found it necessary to make sure my own projects are compatible with the company’s existing software and work properly on each team member’s machine. This problem has always been handled for me or completely overlooked in school, so I was intrigued about learning the ways in which Valor standardizes their software. Here we use Docker Engine, a software tool that deploys virtual containers to provide each team member with the same development environment across platforms. It’s very powerful knowing that the team will be able to run my code as expected when I work within the Docker container, and vice versa.

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UNIT TESTING

 I‘ve had experience creating unit tests for my academic projects to ensure my code behaves as expected, but this has always been a posterior exercise for my own sanity. Throughout my internship, I’ve experienced the benefits of writing unit tests before beginning the implementation process. Tackling real-world problems is typically not as clear-cut, and it can save significant time to consider the end goal of your program before you even get started working. This method will similarly make debugging sessions easier since you already have proper test suites to traceback any issues. Unit testing maintains a greater purpose when working within a development team-- It not only proves to others that your code runs properly, but it also will act as a signal to team members when their own changes compromise your work later down the line. 

Though I took what I’ve learned at UC Berkeley and applied it to my internship, I now plan on carrying what I’ve learned at Valor over into my final year as an undergraduate student. I give many thanks to the enjoyable and supporting team I met here this Summer as I learned and laughed a lot. But most importantly of all, I’ve mastered the Bay Area public transportation system.


Xylem Digital Solutions West hosts Norwegian Business School Delegation

By: Sabrina Strauss, Office Manager

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On July 26, 36 students from the Norwegian School of Economics’ Corporate Innovation program visited the Xylem - Digital Solutions’ San Francisco office to learn about innovation in the water industry.  The 36 students are all enrolled at a summer business certificate program at UC Berkeley. CEO Christine Boyle and their professor Leah Edwards have been working together for several years to help students gain office experience and learn about innovation in Silicon Valley. For the past 3 summers (2017-2019), Valor / Xylem has hosted two summer interns from the program, with both Xylem and the interns learning a lot each year. Interns have helped with marketing material, product documentation, and user group event planning. We also host them to a baseball game each summer. 

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The 2019 program on Corporate Innovation focusses on startup methods utilized within bigger organizations, as well as the acquisition of startups as a way to kickstart innovation in big companies. The one-day visit aimed to provide students real -life examples of corporate innovation, with a focus on the water industry. 

Christine Boyle started the session with an introduction of Xylem and their business mission, as well as the development of their relationship with Valor Water Analytics, which led to the company’s acquisition in 2018. Valor Water is now part of the Xylem - Digital Solutions group.  Next, Xylem staff delivered sessions on product management, data science & AI, and software development practices at Xylem. 

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The students showed great interest in each presentation, and had great questions.  It was a pleasure to have the group and their Professor stop by, and we are looking forward to the next batch in 2020.


Congratulations Imagine H2O Asia!

By: Christine Boyle, CEO

On July 16-19 in Singapore, Imagine H2O Asia launched its inaugural Asia Water Innovation Week. Activities were hosted by Enterprise Singapore, and in collaboration with Singapore PUB. Eight companies were selected for the inaugural Imagine H2O Asia cohort, from an application pool of 110 water startups. Here is a listing of the cohort companies, plus WateROAM, a participant of the San Francisco 2019 cohort:

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Xylem - Digital Solutions Director Christine Boyle delivered a talk to the startups called ‘All the Way to the Exit: A Founder’s Perspective on Managing Growth’ during the Day-2 activities at Singapore Water Exchange. Founders were engaged and full of the energy it takes to build a successful water start up. 

The culmination of the week was Demo Day Presentations and Awards. Each founder gave a four-minute long demo to an audience of investors, startups, utility officials, sponsors, and more. Nine judges deliberated to decide on the 2019 prize winners. After a hard-fought deliberation session, the judges selected Pani Energy as the 2019 Imagine H2O Asia winner. MicroHAOPS received honorable mention.

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Three cheers to Nimesh Modak, Tom Ferguson, Scott Bryan, Kelly Trott, Kelven Lam, and Ellie Baker for this successful launch in Asia.

Valor Water at the GAWP Annual Conference in Savannah

By: Alex Puryear, Business Development Manager

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Once again, the Georgia Association of Water Professionals annual conference in Savannah proved to be a great event. Georgia utilities have always been at the head of the pack when adopting new technologies to help them lower their non-revenue water. For this reason, Valor Water has seen Georgia as a key state to succeed in.

 This year’s turnout surpassed expectations. We were able to connect with many current clients and meet new prospective clients who were excited to hear more about our apparent loss solution. I especially enjoyed hearing my colleagues, Jennifer Stevens from Emnet and Brad Gresham from Wachs Water give presentations to the group.

If you ever find yourself in Savannah, make sure to check out The Olde Pink House or Alligator Soul. Both great places to eat!

Looking forward to future GAWP events.

You can find more information about the Georgia Association of Water Professionals on their website.

Getting to Know Our Summer Interns: Introducing Celine

This is part 2 of our intern introduction blog posts. Part 3 will be posted in August. You can read part 1 here.

By: Celine Clausen

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I am a 23 year old woman from Norway and graduated with a bachelor's degree from the Norwegian School of Economics. As a part of my masters, I am attending a 10-week long program called Innovation School, during which I am studying at UC Berkeley and interning with Valor Water Analytics - A Xylem Company. 

Why I wanted to work at Xylem

It was mainly the combination of sustainability and technology that sparked my interest in working at Xylem. By contributing to solve challenges related to water, Valor also contributes with their software solutions to the resolution of water scarcity issues. I also liked how Valor is addressing one specific area, with the focus is to be the best in this area, rather than delivering several halfway solutions in several different areas. Also, I wanted to work for a company that will be relevant in the future, and I believe that Valor’s technological solutions are going to provide many water utilities with valuable analytics in the years to come. 

How I like working at Valor

It is very interesting to learn about an industry that is completely new to me. It is a fun challenge to understand how Valor's solutions work and the great value they bring to water utilities. I am also overwhelmed by the friendly people working here and the good vibe in the office. Valor has a very flat structure where all thoughts and opinions are heard, and even as an intern I feel appreciated which is very motivating when working. 

My future plans

I want to keep working with global challenges and combine my business degree with my interest in preserving the environment. Therefore, I will lead my master degree in a more sustainable direction, by studying energy, natural resources and the environment with an underlying business focus. 

As I enjoy learning and new challenges I can see myself working a few years in consulting before entering a more specific industry. My time with Valor has been a great learning experience, as I have learned how to quickly understand and adapt to a new industry and business area.

Life in San Francisco

I am a very active surfer so I am trying to surf as much as possible in areas close to San Francisco. Surfing has also been a great way to experience the culture, see the surrounding nature and meet new people. I also spend a lot of time checking out the different parts of the city and eat good food. San Francisco is a very cultural city, and I really enjoy all the art and music there is!

My best San Francisco experience

My best experience in San Francisco was celebrating Pride in Dolores Park with good friends. It was such a happy and colorful experience. I believe no other place does celebrating Pride better than San Francisco.


Challenges and Innovations: Current and Future States of Water Affordability: Part 2

Note:

This is the second in a series of Valor Water Analytics blog posts exploring water affordability, customer nonpayment, and potential solutions that enable utilities to deliver water more equitably and sustainably to all customers. You can read the first post here.

Where We Are Today: Identifying and Reaching Vulnerable Customers

By Stacey Isaac Berahzer; Christine Boyle, PhD; editing by Maryana Pinchuk

In our last blog post, we discussed affordability topics that have been relatively well-covered in the water industry and academic research: the definition and measurement of affordability in the context of water service delivery, and an overview of customer assistance program (CAP) creation and funding. Though not necessarily solved, these issues have been discussed in many publications and conference proceedings. In this post, we will discuss a topic that has received less coverage: how a lack of customer information and contact data makes it difficult for utilities to increase CAP enrollment.

Customer data: the Cap on CAPs

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As detailed in our last post, a well-designed CAP can provide much-needed assistance for customers who chronically struggle to pay their water bills. In the last 10 years, CAPs have evolved to become more creative and sophisticated. Programming ranges from income-based rates programs such as the City of Philadelphia to home efficiency plumbing assistance for low-income customers, such as the Water Efficiency Program in Portland, Oregon. Participants in the Water Efficiency Program can have eligible fees reversed, including reminder fees and a range of eligible shutoff fees.   

While programs demonstrate innovative approaches, a common challenge is reaching eligible customers and getting them to enroll in programs. No utility wants to go through the administrative and financial hurdles of creating a CAP, only to find that a large number of eligible customers are not taking advantage of the assistance. But without a strategy for marketing a CAP to the right audience in the right way, this is a serious risk.

Utilities face a variety of barriers to communicating with customers about CAPs, including language and cultural barriers, trust issues, and more. However, there are two fundamental barriers that we will explore in more detail below: 1) lack of accurate, up-to-date data on who utility customers are and ways to reach them, and 2) inability to communicate with renters and other customers who pay their water bills to a third party and not directly to the utility.

Customer data: Knowing your customers

In order to market CAPs to the right customers, a utility must know which customers are struggling to afford their water bills and be able to contact them.

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Unfortunately, this is not as simple as it may sound. Some utilities lack even basic data on the identity of their customers. A utility facing this dilemma head-on is the City of Detroit Water. In recent years Detroit has invested in communication technologies (interactive voice response systems and smartphone-enabled applications) and bill payment systems (local payment points) to make it easier for customers to access information and pay their bills. Even with these improvements, however, the basic problem of customer information tracking has led service shutoffs in Detroit to increase. As Joel Kurth reported in 2017, “Detroit officials acknowledge they don’t know the identity of two-thirds of their customers because most bills are sent to “occupant,” and they don’t know if homes that are shut off are occupied.”

For utilities that do have more detailed information on their customers than just premise address, it may still be difficult to identify customers who are eligible for a CAP. Utilities do not typically track factors that could make it difficult for some customers to pay their water bills, such as whether customers are low-income or fixed-income seniors. Relying on historical data on past shutoffs/nonpayment may be tempting, but this may not provide much insight into which customers are struggling with affordability now or will struggle with this in the future – for example, if the service area is experiencing a large demographic shift, or if water rates will be higher during upcoming summer or drought periods. Lastly, many utilities do not collect customer contact data beyond physical addresses, but paper notices delivered in the mail may not be sufficient for reaching prospective CAP customers – especially those who change addresses frequently, such as students and short-term renters.

Hard-To-Reach: Broadening the definition of “customers”

To make matters even more difficult for utilities interested in marketing CAPs, many of their most vulnerable customers fall through the cracks because they pay their water bills to a landlord or as part of a home maintenance fee, not to the utility directly. Though it may not seem like they are the utility’s “customers,” these water users are no different from any other customer when it comes to needing safe water and not wanting their service to be terminated.

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These customers make up an estimated 40% of low-income households in the US, making them a good target demographic for a CAP. But, because these “hard-to-reach” customers are usually not tracked in the utility’s billing system, the utility often has no way to identify or contact them. This population of customers demonstrates that outreach mechanisms must be tailored to specific customer types. Renters tend to be more transitory than other types of residential customers, making a land-line or an address unreliable contact channels. Instead, mobile phones may be a better way to reach these customers.

While the majority of water utilities are still wondering how (or even if) to design CAPs that help multifamily tenants who pay for their water service indirectly through rent, utilities such as Seattle Public Utilities (SPU) have made the leap. Seattle’s Utility Discount Program (UDP) provides a bill discount of 50 percent of the SPU bill for customers with an income at or below 70 percent of the state median income. This bill discount is even provided to hard-to-reach customers. SPU is able to do this by working with Seattle City Light to provide combined utility credits on hard-to-reach customers’ electricity bills. However, this is still the exception to the rule. Indeed, a key finding of a Water Research Foundation project to study the “hard-to-reach” customer issue is that “utilities typically do not have channels in place to effectively communicate and engage with the hard to reach.”

A path forward: changing the customer-utility relationship

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Traditionally, the only way that a utility engages with its customers is through the water bill. But many other businesses today – from online marketplaces to banks and cellular data providers – make use of multiple communication channels to engage with their customers before, during, and after a transaction. As a recent J.D. Power survey indicates, this is the level of service that all customers expect from their service providers, including utilities.

We believe that tackling customer engagement challenges, including ones related to affordability, starts with adopting this mindset. The next step is developing customer data management practices that can enable utilities to understand and communicate with all of their customers, including those who struggle with affordability. This opens the door to advanced solutions and novel interventions to address affordability, which will be the topic of the next post in this series.