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Unitywater provides water and sewerage services to the Moreton Bay, Sunshine Coast and Noosa regions of South East Queensland. As part of the Intelligent Customer and Network Operations initiative outlined in its Corporate Strategic Plan, Unitywater is working on digitally connecting and integrating its water and sewerage services to reduce costs, improve productivity and enhance the customer experience.

The utility’s 5,223 square kilometre service area has a growing population of more than 791,000 people, and its assets include around 6,150km of water mains, 5,900km of sewerage mains and 17 sewage treatment plants (STPs).

Unitywater’s 24/7 Network Operations Control Room has been monitoring and controlling water supply and sewerage networks since its formation in 2010.

In 2015, the utility completed a major $50 million upgrade of its SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) system, bringing the monitoring and control of its water distribution network, sewage collection network and communication network onto one platform within the Control Room.

Rhett Duncan, Executive Manager Customer Delivery at Unitywater, said that the water utility was formed through the amalgamation of three councils that used different SCADA systems.

“The newly formed Unitywater prioritised capital investment to upgrade and standardise these disparate SCADA systems for our water and sewerage networks,” Mr Duncan said.

Unitywater’s 17 STPs, however, remained outside this system and to add further complexity, the STPs were using four different brands of SCADA.

STPs were only staffed during working hours, with the on-call operator relying on critical alarms being paged out by the SCADA system after hours. Staff then remotely dialled in and took corrective action.

This arrangement was less than ideal, but the projected costs and logistics of integrating the different systems were, until recently, prohibitive.

The STP SCADA systems would need to be standardised as part of a renewal project rather than a one-off capital project.

“One of the directions under Unitywater’s strategy is investing in intelligent systems that will digitally connect our water and sewerage services to improve the productivity of our operations and provide a hassle-free experience for our customers,” Mr Duncan said.

“We recognised that integrating the systems and leveraging our 24/7 Control Room would provide improved operational efficiencies, particularly for after-hours monitoring and critical alarm triage.”

Investigating potential technology solutions

Spurred on by the Intelligent Operations strategic initiative, a technical investigation was undertaken by the Operational Technology (OT) team, which identified that the disparate STP SCADA systems could be integrated into the 24/7 Control Room using new technologies.

After carefully examining various virtual application solutions, the OT team identified two technologies, RemoteApp by Microsoft and Net support Manager, that would effectively integrate the four STP SCADA brands.

“These two thin clients were chosen as they met the technical requirements without hindering the network bandwidths of the remote STP sites,” Mr Duncan said.

“The two thin client solutions enabled us to defer the significant capital investment needed to improve the network bandwidths and additional SCADA licensing costs in comparison to the traditional approach, which would involve putting more cables underground.”

A proof of concept (POC) trial integrated three STP SCADA systems using the two technology solutions with the goal of testing the conceptual design against the following measures
of success:

  • Successful installation of software systems and ability to remotely monitor and control the STP SCADA systems from the 24/7 Control Room
  • Acceptable operating speeds of the STP SCADA systems via remote operation using current bandwidth and link speeds
  • Prove the robustness of the software by achieving comparable ‘up times’ of the remote monitored solution to that of the current SMS and dial-in alternatives
  • Reduction of STP operator call-outs due to monitoring of alarms by Network Operations Control Room staff after hours

RemoteApp by Microsoft was used to launch the virtual ClearSCADA ViewX program – the program appeared on the operator workstations as if it were installed locally, but it was actually running on a remote server in one of Unitywater’s data centres.

NetSupport Manager was the additional tool used to provide remote access capability for the STPs whose SCADA systems couldn’t be virtualised due to product or system configuration limitations.

NetSupport Manager was chosen because of its strength as a one-to-many solution, allowing the 24/7 Control Room to shadow STP operators’ screens for training purposes.

With the concept now proven, a project to integrate the remaining 14 STPs using the NetSupport solution followed, resulting in end-to-end visibility of the water and sewerage, and STP SCADA systems.

A structured approach to triaging the STP SCADA alarms during after hours was also developed.

For Unitywater, the project successfully removed the barriers to operational efficiency and took the brakes off innovation and further enhancement.

Collaboration key to driving change

The STP SCADA integration project has radically simplified and improved current systems in a cost-effective and sustainable manner by deploying NetSupport Manager and Microsoft RemoteApp solutions.

The project was delivered by internal resources over a period of just six weeks, leveraging the existing tools with zero cost to the business. It is a cost-effective and sustainable example for Unitywater’s digital utility future.

“The systems have improved our decision-making by allowing our Control Room operators to have end-to-end visibility of all assets in one location. It has also provided our network operations and treatment plant teams the opportunity to share and transfer skills,” Mr Duncan said.

Whilst the implementation of technology was a key project enabler, the full benefits of the digital solution were only made possible when matched with strategic people management,  engagement and training.

The STP operational knowledge existed within one team who only worked daytime hours, whilst the 24/7 resource availability existed within a different team holding minimal STP operational knowledge.

To combine the two key factors of STP operational knowledge and 24/7 staff availability for ongoing training, Unitywater embarked upon a knowledge sharing and detailed process mapping journey:

  • Stage 1 consisted of Control Room operators attending STP sites and becoming familiar with the different treatment processes and operational equipment. This was matched with STP SCADA training sessions
  •  Stage 2 saw the joint development of defined standard operating procedures (SOPs) and process maps to a detail that was not previously required due to the experience and local knowledge of the STP operators
  • Stage 3 involved the commencement of the central Control Room operators managing STP SCADA system alarms and faults whilst being remotely ‘shadowed’ by STP operators. This provided further training and ensured that sufficient competencies had been developed for solo after-hours monitoring

“The training and co-creation of standard operating procedures (SOP) was a key step to bridge the STP operations knowledge gap which existed within our Control Room team,” Mr Duncan said.

“Prior to the upgrade, most Control Room operators had not worked within an STP environment and the training had to start with the foundations to build a level of competence that could effectively respond to alarms in the appropriate way.

“The team was supported with standard operating procedures, led by STP teams to transfer their knowledge. This was a great example of two diverse teams working together to build the competencies the business needed to deliver more efficient outcomes.”

Unitywater is excited to embark on the next round of system enhancements which are aimed at driving better business through increased use of automation, integration with SCADA and IoT devices, and embracing the digital twin concept to visualise its assets in real time.

“Unitywater has been proactive in adopting emerging technologies like IoT, machine learning, and Robotic Process Automation to help achieve our strategic goals. We rolled out a smart meter trial and will be expanding this in 2020-21.

We are currently working on a number of other technology projects that will provide valuable insights into our network and operations, and we look forward to sharing these soon,” Mr Duncan said.

Charlotte Pordage is Editor of Utility magazine, a position she has held since November 2018. She joined the team as an Associate Editor in October 2017, after sharpening her writing and editing skills across a range of print and digital publications. Charlotte graduated from Royal Holloway, University of London, in 2011 with joint honours in English and Latin. When she's not putting together Australia's only dedicated utility magazine, she can usually be found riding her horse or curled up with a good book.

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