When Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker ordered a statewide closure of nonessential businesses to help contain the spread of COVID-19 last week, the order left many businesses scrambling to keep their companies running from a distance. But Haverhill Water Division’s 10 plant workers remained calm. The essential function of the water treatment plant meant its workers could still report to the site. They also knew that if restrictions tighten further, the plant can keep operating with just one person on-site and the rest of the crew managing the system remotely.
“We’re ready to go if that happens,” says John D’Aoust, the water treatment plant manager for the city of Haverhill, a Boston suburb. “We have the ability to get into our plant remotely and operate it through a VPN” — a virtual private network. “No matter what location we’re in, we always have good notification in place, and we always know what’s going on.”
The city’s water system supplies 58,000 homes and businesses with more than 2 billion gallons of water annually. One of the oldest communities in Massachusetts, Haverhill sits between the Merrimack River and the New Hampshire border. Its 36 square miles encompass farmland, a ski area and a bustling downtown, where redevelopment is reviving redbrick mills once built for shoemaking.
Haverhill Water is already ahead of the game — the plant has been using a form of remote digital access for 13 years now. In 2007, with the state’s approval, the plant was an early adopter of remote operations and monitoring. Upgrading to GE Digital’s iFIX automation software allowed the plant to run overnight on a skeleton crew of just one operator. What that means in practice: If anyone on-site ever needs assistance, the remaining operations staff are authorized to fire up their laptops or tablets and securely connect to the water system to advise on-site staff or take action themselves.
Water plants like Haverhill, a midsized utility, source water from reservoirs and transform it into the safe, clean drinking water that flows from their customers’ taps. The series of crucial steps in between is the science of modern water treatment. Haverhill pulls water from two reservoirs (and gravity helps with a third) into Kenoza Lake, where the plant runs it through a series of eight treatments. Additives like aluminum sulfate — a coagulant used for water purification — draw out surface solids through electromagnetic attraction. Filtering through sand and granular activated carbon removes impurities just like a water-filtration pitcher at home. Haverhill also fluoridates its water (a common step taken for public dental health) and treats it with a zinc compound that inhibits pipe corrosion. Outside the plant, the utility maintains water storage tanks to sustain consistent water pressure for customers.
GE’s automation system allows the water department to control every step of the process from any digital device anywhere in the world. Employees can open and shut Kenoza Lake from its reservoir feeds, set pumps that control chemical treatments, monitor pH and chemical levels, and adjust chemical concentrations. On top of monitoring and control, every pumping station, feed pump and critical motor has a digital alarm linked into the software.
Since Haverhill adopted this technology more than a dozen years ago, its software, workflow and small-crew capabilities have all become second nature, and the system has continued to run smoothly. “If you put all the proper plans in place, and you have the right hardware to enable the necessary security, you can do this safely and securely,” D’Aoust says.
For now, the plant’s 10 staffers continue to work on-site every day, following public health guidelines like distancing from one another and disinfecting common areas to keep the crew safe. An expansion project on the site has been isolated from the plant’s daily operations as an extra precaution. While there’s no need yet for completely remote monitoring, D’Aoust says his team is prepared for that move: “As long as it has an adequate supply of chemicals and electricity, this plant will just continue to run.”
Top image credit: GE Digital.