“From the Field” is a new series of interviews in which water utility operators share their insights and experiences on varied topics.
Hearing from peers in other water utilities is one of the best ways to get new ideas and gain more understanding about issues and trends. In this new series of occasional articles, we ask several water professionals to share their thoughts on a particular topic. The first article focuses on how they are coping with the challenges thrown up by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Insights and experiences shared by:
- Cristian Jiménez, Operations Manager, Aguas Antofagasta, Chile
- Darren Cash, Customer Hub Manager, Sydney Water, Australia
- Francisco Iturriaga, Department Head, Operational Intelligence, Esval & Aquas del Valle, Valparaíso and Coquimbo, Chile
- Germán Ramos, Operations Manager, Sedapal, Peru
- Jorge Ramirez, Manager - Water Provision Management, EPM, Columbia
- Rhett Duncan, Executive Manager - Customer Delivery, Unitywater, Queensland, Australia
Answers have been edited for clarity and brevity.
Q: How has COVID impacted your company – in terms of operations, teams, customer service and any other aspects?
Christian, Aguas Antofagasta: Operating at a distance has been a big challenge and so having early warnings and optimizing the use of tools, such as TaKaDu, is valuable. Starting in March 2020, we had to reinforce the operation by adding personnel to these teams, and that meant that we had to put a lot of energy into training people. We also had to add personnel to have reserve personnel, preparing for an eventual case of COVID contagion, and train them.
We had to deal with technical issues about equipment, operational issues, operation and maintenance issues, as well as issues related to billing, and to the quality of service. So, in all, COVID has fundamentally changed certain aspects of our company.
Darren, Sydney Water: In the first lockdown, we very quickly isolated the data operations center team, who all have critical 24/7 roles, prohibiting visitors from elsewhere in the building and establishing priority routes to and from the center.
Now we’re on day 104 of the second lockdown [editor’s note: it has now ended]. Our office building is located within one of the worst-affected areas, so all of our key 24/7 functions moved to a work-from-home arrangement – our control room, call center, dispatchers – they’re all working from home. Maintaining engagement with the team and team wellbeing is all very challenging. So, we’re doing a lot of things in that regard, like people logging their bike rides, group Pilates sessions, things like that to maintain some sort of mental health and wellbeing. And now, we’re working on a vaccination policy for the organization.
Germán, Sedapal: Starting March 15th, 2020, due to quarantine rules, we reduced our staff by more than half. And, along the way, as people got infected with COVID, the issue became more complicated. We needed people for field work, so we hired emergency personnel. But they had to have some knowledge, so we mostly hired people who had worked for other service contractors, who at least knew something about how to operate and maintain a secondary network. We hired over 70 people, and with them we have been able to keep continuity in maintaining and operating the system. The contracted personnel are still working with us, and they’ll stay as long as the state of emergency lasts.
The good thing about all this is that when the pandemic is over, and we need to fill positions, whether due to retirement or other reasons, we will have a fairly large pool of personnel we can recruit at any time because they already know the systems and have demonstrated operational capabilities in our network.
Right in the middle of the pandemic we started the pilot with TaKaDu, to give us a big data analysis tool with artificial intelligence. The whole implementation has been with mostly with remote personnel. I think it has helped us a lot especially to maintain the operational capacity of the systems, because many of the actions for the prioritization of leaks used to be done with visual inspections, locators, and regulators. And now we can do it remotely.
Jorge, EPM: Operating in a Latin American country that already had lots of difficulties, the pandemic added additional challenges. In some ways, national regulations to ensure continued supply of service during COVID restricted the actions we could take in terms of fraud control and loss control. We were obliged to deliver good quality and good service to clients, with continuity, regardless of the COVID effects and restrictions we were under. We established different work schemes that allowed us to work towards continuity.
The COVID issue brings negative things, but also elements that we took advantage of, such as TaKaDu and other technologies, and continuing with digital transformation. Incredibly, we have improved our service level agreements, we have substantially reduced loss control, and we are in compliance with the regulations.
Rhett, Unitywater: We've been fairly fortunate here in Queensland as we haven't been as impacted by COVID as some other states. We've been very focused on being ready to isolate key teams in the event of an outbreak, to make sure we can continue to operate. As we go forward, we will probably have only 50% to 70% of office staff onsite at any one time. We try not to bring field crews into the office if we can avoid it. We’ve also focused on how they manage their separation from the public, for example, the process of knocking on a customer's door to explain we need to access their property.
We work closely with our peer utilities in South-East Queensland to share labor resources if it’s needed. Another point: availability of materials has changed from two years ago, so we’ve been carefully managing our inventory of critical parts, and of items that have long lead times in the current market.
Q: With the perspective that comes from a year and a half of pandemic operations, what sort of changes have you seen in consumption, billing or other areas?
Christian, Aguas Antofagasta: There certainly has been an impact on the company's invoicing. In Chile, after a certain number of months if a customer doesn't pay the water bill, the water is cut off. But the water has not been cut off since last year. So, any deviation that there may be, for example, in the billing processes, has an impact on the levels of non-billed water. Following the heaviest months of the pandemic, we had an increase in the number of claims relating to billing and quality of service, with the relationship with the customer mainly being through claims.
Darren, Sydney Water: It’s been pretty much what you would expect. In the central business district of Sydney, the water use has dropped right off. The flow and the wastewater network, which brings its own challenges, has also dropped off. And, obviously, there’s been an increase across all residential areas. But, other than that, it's not a massive change, and nothing that really, provides any significant challenges for us, not at this stage anyway.
Germán, Sedapal: Payments are affected. Because of national directives, we at first could not cut off water because of debts. Now, for commercial and industrial customers, it is permitted to shut off supplies, but there is still an order not to cut off water for residential users who are in the lower economic sectors. Also, there have also been payment relief directives, to allow customers to delay payment of their bill for up to 24 months, among other things, until the population can assume the cost of the potable water service that we supply them. Still, we have not been too affected with non-billed water. In Sedapal the non-billed water during the pandemic have pretty much stayed the same.
Rhett, Unitywater: We don't have a CBD (central business district) in the Unitywater region. When we locked down originally, we noticed a small shift in DMAs where there is a reasonable business hub, and tourism, but also, highly residential. And we saw some DMAs pick up slightly as people were staying at home, but not a massive shift. What we noticed, more than a change in consumption patterns, was that customer complaints increased when people were locked down at home, particularly probably around odor complaints. They're at home, and with not a lot to do, so they were noticing our infrastructure a lot more. Also, the infrastructure was probably constantly working in areas where it probably was never intended to work in that manner throughout the course of the day.
A note from the TaKaDu team
Thank you to everyone who shared their experiences and perspectives. Apparently, the pandemic is going to continue affecting water utilities’ operations for a long time to come, so getting ideas from how others are weathering the disruption is helpful to all.
To all readers: Check back here soon for the next article in our From the Field series.