Smartening up our infrastructure

“It’s fair to say that water distribution, like electricity distribution, has historically been quite ‘dumb,’” says Rupp Carriveau, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at the University of Windsor. “If there’s a leak in the water system, you often only know about it if someone is flooded out.”

Through his work with the Essex Region Smart Water Project, he’s searching for ways to smarten up the system with sensors that monitor pressure loss and collect data that can be used to make more informed water management decisions.

Ontario’s Essex County has the highest concentration of greenhouses in North America, and, in 2012, it accounted for 80 per cent of the province’s greenhouse vegetable production, valued at $660-million. These greenhouses also account for more than three-quarters of the area’s water use, which has raised questions as to whether the industry can expand further without negatively impacting water availability or water pressure for the region’s other residential, commercial, industrial and agricultural customers.

Through the Essex Region Smart Water Project, Dr. Carriveau is installing sensors in greenhouses to monitor pressure and flow loss, which will enable him to build a model that incorporates historic trends and real-time data.

“This model will allow us to recognize patterns in real time and be predictive about demand requirements,” he says. “We can see how a greenhouse growing cucumbers pulls water compared to one growing tomatoes, and we can predict the impact of other factors like sunshine and temperature. In practical terms, this means we are able to build a demand curve that the utility can follow to be more strategic in its planning.”

The current data shows that unlike earlier predictions that greenhouse growers were close to being “capped out waterwise,” the water was simply being allocated inefficiently. The utility will be able to use Dr. Carriveau’s work to better align water supply and demand.

His experience on this project exemplifies the unique strengths that university-based research engineers bring to complex, multi-stakeholder projects. “As an unbiased third party, we’re able to go in and see the challenges. We were then able to bring together the municipalities, water supplier and greenhouse growers, and that allowed important conversations to occur.” 

This article originally appeared in a Globe and Mail sponsor content feature for the Ontario Society of Professional Engineers produced by RandallAnthony Communications Inc. Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.