UEM’s Mechanical Distribution supports researchers studying university’s water distribution system

Water pressure and quality on campus are probably things many staff, faculty, and students take for granted and don’t spend a lot of time thinking about. But for Dr. Lina Sela, assistant professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural, and Environmental Engineering, they are on her mind a lot as she and her colleagues collect and analyze data about the university’s water distribution system. Collecting this data is part of an ongoing collaboration between the Cockrell School of Engineering and Utilities and Energy Management’s (UEM) Mechanical Distribution division. The research project is supported in part by the National Science Foundation’s Leading Engineering for America's Prosperity, Health, and Infrastructure (LEAP-HI) program.

Working with Dr. Sela’s team, Mechanical Distribution identifies, installs, and activates a wireless network of water sensors across campus that relays information about fluctuations in water pressure and quality. The data collected are then used to help predict where pipes might fail, leading to water loss or contamination.

“The data we’re collecting is essential for the design and management of intelligent water systems in the future,” Dr. Sela said.

According to the Water Environment Federation, intelligent water systems (IWS) are where technology meets infrastructure, and the systems provide real-time data that allow remote monitoring, management, and control of things like water pressure, waste, and quality. This in turn helps organizations like the university with large urban water systems optimize their water resources, predict or quickly locate failures, and support conservation efforts.

Being able to predict and quickly identify low water pressure is important for a number of reasons. According to Jim Shrull, UEM Mechanical Distribution manager, low water pressure or fluctuating water pressure can have a major impact on building systems such as fire sprinkler systems, where a reduction in pressure could make a building sprinkler system ineffective.

“Dr. Sela’s research is very important because it will provide us with a high-quality water distribution system model that can be used to make better decisions about water-related projects in the future,” Shrull said. “A model like this is helpful for troubleshooting water delivery problems in a building, working to add domestic water delivery and protection devices to new buildings, and identifying areas where targeted money needs to be spent to improve our infrastructure.”

Shrull said that with all the construction happening on campus, the university’s water system is also constantly being shut down in targeted areas to allow for the addition of new buildings or devices.

“These shutdowns can affect water quality if the areas are allowed to sit and stagnate too long,” Shrull said. “We have procedures in place to mitigate that from happening, but this model could provide better insight into the overall system quality and help fine-tune our efforts.”

For the Cockrell School of Engineering, this research is significant because the data can be used to determine new ways for continuous monitoring of water distribution systems to predict changes in water quality and optimize urban water systems. According to Dr. Sela, the goals for this ongoing project include supporting intelligent water systems, providing opportunities for training and professional development for graduate and undergraduate students who will be leaders in Civil and Environmental Engineering, bridging knowledge gaps, and promoting scientific research toward practical implementation.

“This research would not be possible without the support from the Mechanical Distribution team,” Dr. Sela said. “In addition to enabling the installations of the sensors, the team provided extensive technical support with the installation of the online sensor, had multiple meetings with our research team, provided data, facilitated in developing the hydraulic model, answered questions, shared institutional knowledge, and provided feedback on the progress of the project. Data is essential for the design and management of intelligent water systems of the future, and yet often, data is very limited and hinders the development of advanced decision support systems. This collaboration between academia and utility promotes technology integration and helps to bridge the barriers to widespread adoption of innovative water technologies.”

Dr. Sela’s research is focused on creating new predictive models and computational tools for intelligent water systems supported by the integration of increasingly available information from sensing technologies.

The university can expect more research collaborations involving Utilities and Energy Management (UEM) according to Executive Director Xavier Rivera Marzán.

“UEM is always open to building innovative partnerships with academics,” Rivera Marzán said. “We can share our operational and industry-related experience to support UT's global leadership in energy and environmental research. Projects like this impact our university community and eventually the world, and UEM is eager to offer support.”