Why Facilities Need More And Better Stormwater Data To Improve Disaster Preparedness 6425fb4aa7ec2

How data can protect your facility from natural disasters

March 30, 2023
"A lot of plants located near bodies of water and with sea level rise, things like that, changes are needing to be made."

Zorana Kojic is a regional sales executive for StormSensor, a company that links critical storm, sewer, and coastal infrastructure performance to climate data. StormSensor’s goal is to provide real-time advanced insights on flood and overflow risks across the community, including factories. The company offers advance insights and warnings when there might be a disaster or stormwater event that could impact plant operations. Plant Services editor in chief Thomas Wilk and managing editor Anna Townshend recently spoke with Zorana about how this new technology can help plants make better decisions about disaster preparedness to avoid unplanned downtime.

Listen to Zorana Kojic on The Tool Belt Podcast

PS: Let’s dive into some of those real-life examples. I know you have some really great case studies to talk about, so tell us how people are using this technology.

ZK: Sure. One great example comes out of New Jersey. There is a bus depot in close proximity to a reservoir, which is operated by a private water utility. Each bus is at least $750,000 and if the water utility ever has an overflow problem, the transit authority wants to have data ahead of time to evacuate the buses and thus protect their assets.

So what can happen? If the reservoir is full and a heavy rain event comes, the water utility doesn't want to let go of that water, but they're going to have to, right? So then they discharge that water, and that's where it can create a detrimental effect to the bus depot. What we did is we helped collect weather data, we are also using data from the USGS at a dam nearby. We also have our sensors placed nearby to provide more frequent river depth information. Combining all the data together, we can predict and anticipate when the dam might be released. The facility manager at the bus depot can then make the decision to evacuate before it is too late.

The next area that I want to talk about is Coney Island Yard, so also up in the northeast. They've got about 80 train tracks and they want to protect their assets as well by taking action at the right time. They have already taken proactive steps by raising their electrical power infrastructure off the ground. Now they are building a multi-million dollar sea wall around their facility. Nevertheless, they have gone ahead and installed a few of our sensors just in case of a flooding incident. It takes them about a day to move their equipment, so having data before an asset loss incident is critical to their operations.

Last but not least, I want to talk about pump stations. Pump stations can be part of any plant and if there is a power failure, the facility management can know what is happening even then. Our sensors are battery powered, so our telemetry can still send out critical depth text message alerts and someone can take a look out there before it becomes an even bigger problem.

We also have an installation just outside of Detroit, so they're doing a really interesting project using bioretention cells as part of their stormwater network. They're using these bioretention cells that are basically mulch that allow water to infiltrate through the ground and they clean up the water that way. Well, if the water sits in the bioretention cell longer than 48 hours and our sensors are able to track that, then they know that that mulch needs to get changed out, so that is a way that they can do a maintenance event based on an engineering standard – which is that infiltration time – rather than a random calendar event.

PS: Interesting. And you're really speaking the language of a lot of our readers who are the maintenance and reliability folks who are trying to get into a more proactive position in general with their workload. Our writers often says “backlogs should not have birthdays.” There's there's a way to tackle the work that you've got in real time and not let it stack up before disaster event happens. That Detroit example is really striking too, because you mentioned that it's more as-needed maintenance and not calendar-based. There's a couple examples you've got but that one made a connection for me with what our readers are working through.

ZK: A lot of plants located near bodies of water and with sea level rise, things like that, changes are needing to be made. So the more data you have of what's going on in your particular area, the better decisions you can make about where to spend your money for those improvements.

PS: So do weather events like the US has been experiencing in the past month or so elevate the profile of what StormSensor is doing? Does the weather sort of advertise itself as less predictable these days?

ZK: I would say that there's two factors. One, we have such better technology than we used to have in the past so we're able to get data a lot quicker, and because we're able to do so, the conclusions we’re able to draw show that things are changing, storms are becoming more severe. But I'd like to take a quote from a professor at Florida International University. He was speaking about hurricane preparedness at a flood mitigation conference I went to and this is relevant to anyone in the private or public sector all over Florida and the southeast: $1 spent on preventative action saves $6 of money needing to be spent after a disaster like a hurricane. So if you run a plant and you invest $1 in a preventative action, whether that is collecting data, you can be ready. Take the value of your assets and assess how much you are willing to spend to protect them. This could be something as simple as a long costly downtime you are preventing.

PS: Interesting, and yeah I think a lot of what we're talking about here is climate change, and I'd like to just point to that a little bit. It's hard to ingest any kind of news these days without hearing about climate change, and especially the focus around water resources is really heating up coast to coast. Can you talk about the connection between what you're seeing with climate change and how that's pressing the need for more and better water data?

ZK: Yeah, I definitely think there's two aspects to it. I feel like there's a cumulative push on ESG and reporting, but I feel like that is very carbon-centric, which, that's great, but I feel like it's missing the water angle. So much of our production industry is based on the use of water, whether the water is used for processing, or something else. How you use water, how you discharge it and the water around your facility, it all matters. Having the data to be able to make better decisions really helps. If we were to shift gears, maybe go over to the West Coast where there's a water scarcity, having data of where water is moving through your plant, maybe you can make some conservation efforts through having that data that you might not have had before.

PS: I've got boys who are 11 and 9, and we talk about this. We talk about it as a problem, which they and their classmates will someday have to manage, right? I'm trying not to scare them too much, even though it's a significant problem and they're already aware of, for example, the value of living right here in the Chicago area by a large freshwater body versus Phoenix, AZ, which is having massive water issues right now with the drought out West. And so technologies like these I think are inspiring because they do point a path forward to managing the situation better.

ZK: I definitely agree. I think your point about water scarcity and where you live highlights the climate change and need to innovate even more. This is kind of person-to-person, but if a resource like water, that you have been used to changes in availability, say you are in Phoenix, what are you willing to spend to get it to you or will you innovate how you use water? Access to real-time data can help you make a smarter choice with your actions.

PS: You just recently attended a conference in Miami, I believe, that was focused on disaster preparedness, right?

ZK: Yes that is right. I went to the Natural Disaster Expo. It actually covered four disasters: flood, storm (like hurricanes), earthquake, and fire. One of the things that was really uplifting to see, was that a lot of our officials and leaders were heavily invested in learning how to be proactive. This is going to drive change within their communities or companies to build a culture of proactivity instead of being reactionary.

Last but not least, we are beginning to see funding changes on a federal level to help with flooding preparedness and proactivity. There is also a growing industry of flood mitigation. There are all these great companies making different flood control devices. How would those fit in with our data in overall preventative mindset operation? For example, we could help a plant gather real-time data and they could set a critical depth alert to a level where they still have time to act. Then they can deploy the flood control device and protect their plant. The old reactionary model would have been to let it all flood, have lots of downtime, having to through insurance, etc. So being proactive is a savings with proper data and equipment.

PS: Right, and not to mention the paperwork and the meetings and all the extra work required to manage a situation like that.

ZK: Exactly.

PS: Quick question about when we were at the ARC Industry Forum. That event had tremendous industry presence and I’m curious to know, is there industry awareness of events like you just went to – the disaster preparedness – where some companies that we saw at ARC also were present at that one?

ZK: I personally did not see a lot of cross section there, but not to say that it was not there. I definitely think it comes down to what the leadership is looking at, and one of the things that I definitely saw ARC was this increasing goal of digitalization: how do we track what we process, and what do we use to track that? And I think that digitalization and having the data is then going to drive the wish for even more data with other aspects such as helping to protect their assets. I think that will start bridging the gap between disaster preparedness from a municipal or only city-type perspective to then bridging it to a private sector as well. And I think the private sector once it jumps on that train is going to drive a lot more innovation in the mitigation and data consumption of water.

PS: Right, and that's why I appreciate you coming on the podcast today because we reach, I'd say, primarily an industrial audience, industrial manufacturing. About maybe 10% of our of our readers come from the wastewater-utilities sector. Maybe we can finish up the conversation by focusing on that direct connection between your line of work and the line of work that most of our readers are in, which is the maintenance and reliability side. There's a line on the StormSensor website which I thought was a really powerful one, it says: “StormSensor’s powerful alerts and analytics help cities to reduce power operational costs up to 86% and reduce site visits by up to 94% based on as-needed maintenance rather than as-scheduled.”

That's a huge conversation in the industrial space too: as-needed, maintenance versus as-scheduled. So maybe you could talk further about the connection that you see between the work you're doing and the maintenance that's being done by these utilities.

ZK: Sure, if we look at a utility, their wastewater and stormwater networks are huge, maybe a whole county. It's a lot of miles of pipe and they will never have enough personnel to get through it all. You want to be strategic when you send out maintenance, because they will not able to look at all the areas of your system all the time.

Getting some aid from sensors, getting that real time data, like we talked about before, you're able to send someone out when there is an actual need based on an engineering standard or a maintenance standard versus just a calendar. So I think from a plant perspective, they can do the same. From a maintenance standpoint you want to know where and how fast water is moving in and around your site or system. How can you be targeted with your actions so you are not running around chasing things. Instead, you can be proactive, taking only the necessary steps, saving time and money. You can plan out your day and not be in a constant rush chasing down what's broken.

I definitely think having that real-time data you see your entire system on one dashboard. “Where is the emergency? OK, it's over there, it's not on the other side.” I think that can really create a lot more calmness for people on the maintenance side, and allow them to have the time to be proactive, to plan, to see “what are some mitigation efforts I can take if there is some disaster?” Maybe hold a meeting with their environmental, health and safety person and see where are there gaps that we can improve and really shore up our assets for any future events that might come.

About the Author

Thomas Wilk | editor in chief

Thomas Wilk joined Plant Services as editor in chief in 2014. Previously, Wilk was content strategist / mobile media manager at Panduit. Prior to Panduit, Tom was lead editor for Battelle Memorial Institute's Environmental Restoration team, and taught business and technical writing at Ohio State University for eight years. Tom holds a BA from the University of Illinois and an MA from Ohio State University

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