On a Friday afternoon in September, 2019, a broken sewer pipe spewed nearly 6,000 gallons of wastewater onto a street in the Northland neighborhood of Kansas City, Missouri. City repair crews were dispatched immediately to set up bypass pumping, remove sewage from a nearby creek and repair the leak.

Sewage overflows like these have been a chronic problem for Kansas City for many years. In fact, the city has experienced more than 1,000 illegal sewer overflows since 2002, a situation that put the city in violation of the federal Clean Water Act in 2010. At that time, Kansas City implemented a Smart Sewer Program as part of a consent decree agreement with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. 

The program is one of hundreds of similar initiatives emerging across the US, giving rise to smart cities that connect digital elements to the physical world. A smart city is made up of three layers: a base layer of sensors and connected devices, data applications capable of analyzing info from the sensor infrastructure, and, finally, adoption and usage. Together, these elements have the potential to shake up urban life in many ways, from taking on climate change to boosting safety. 

One of the greatest impacts of smart cities thus far, however, has been on the work of the city maintenance crews charged with managing everything from garbage collection to traffic operations. Not only does smart technology enable crews to use actual data to diagnose and pinpoint problems like sewage overflows, speeding up the resolution time, but it also enables crews to become more proactive about preventing them through consistent monitoring capabilities. For Kansas City and other cities around the US, smart technology is making repair crews more prepared, efficient, and effective.

Smart Tech Makes City Crews More Data-Driven

In the past, Kansas City crews used closed-circuit television video (CCTV) cameras to inspect the sewer system visually, often resulting in inadequate repair recommendations. City crews have now been trained in a new technology called Focused Electrode Leak Location (FELL) to quickly and effectively identify and catalog cracks, defective joints and the inadequate service connections that can lead to overflows.

With the FELL technology, crews are now able to move through a service area quickly and collect critical data about pipe conditions that were not visible before. They can pinpoint defect locations and measure sources of infiltration in gallons per minute, eliminating the need for follow-up inspections.

In addition to leveraging FELL technology, crews will take advantage of data supplied by a new smart sensor network that has been installed in the sewer system. “The sensors measure water flows and levels at critical points throughout the city’s wastewater system,” says Chris Hernandez, director of city communications. “That data will be used to ‘train’ an artificial intelligence system that acts as the ‘brain’ of the sewer system to predict how the system will perform during various storm conditions and to enable decisions about how to best route flows during storm events.

The city estimates that these new technologies will enable significant new preventive maintenance capabilities. The new efficiencies that result and the planned substantial system upgrades will pay off in reductions in system backups and overflows and savings in the millions of dollars. 

“Our Smart Sewer Program is now the world’s largest,” adds Hernandez. “We’re using innovation, data, and technology to reduce costs,” Hernandez continues. 

Sensors Save Garbage Collection Crews Time and Wasted Effort

All across the nation, sensor networks are also providing cities with the data they need to remotely manage critical city services—from streetlight replacements to pothole repairs. Thanks to wireless connectivity and the resulting increase in communication, crews can be dispatched much more efficiently, saving service organizations time and funds. 

In Pittsburgh, for instance, smart technologies are transforming the trash can collection process. The city recently replaced 1,200 public trash cans with smart trash cans equipped with sensors that measure garbage volume, a move the city expects to reap annual cost savings of up to $1.54 million.

Before installing the smart trash cans, as many as 20 garbage collectors were dispatched daily for trash collection, often finding that many cans were empty. Now, just eight crew members can accomplish the collection runs in about half the time—and the additional crew members can be assigned to other public works tasks. With fewer trucks and reduced fuel requirements, Pittsburgh will also be able to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 50% by 2030—an important part of the city’s climate change strategy.

Shedding Light on Remote Streetlight Management

Streetlights are a city service that have been historically plagued by frequent failures, often requiring maintenance crews to disrupt traffic to access streetlight poles to perform repairs. (They also represent a significant portion of a city’s energy budget—as much as 40%.)

Today, many cities are installing intelligent streetlight management platforms that feature secure web applications that make it possible to access all devices and status and performance information for remote monitoring and control of outdoor lighting. In Los Angeles, for example, 4,500 miles of streetlights with new LEDs will comprise an interconnected system that provides information about the status of each bulb. With accurate outage information, city operations staff can eliminate truck rolls caused by false alarms, pinpoint nonworking lamps and quickly dispatch crews to specific locations. Many streetlight management solutions also provide predictive information that alert operators to streetlights approaching end of life for proactive scheduling of replacements. 

Beyond transforming streetlight management, these new solutions are also promising greater advancements in other areas. Syracuse, New York, for example, plans to install 17,500 smart streetlights that will be connected to a central network of sensors that provide data collection tools that can be used to pinpoint locations where potholes develop and identify the conditions that cause them, saving time spent on repair by preventing them in the first place. Those tools will also highlight areas of high pedestrian and vehicle traffic, helping the city reduce costs and time spent on traffic management.

As smart city technologies continue to provide the intelligence and flexibility needed to help cities use resources more efficiently, more cities are building networks that enable the fast and free communication of critical data that will help them realize these massive improvements. In fact, it is estimated that, over the next 20 years, city governments will invest approximately $41 trillion on infrastructure upgrades that leverage the benefits of the Internet of Things (IoT). Not only will all of these smart city initiatives transform the way we all live and work, but they will also help the many crews that keep cities running stay ahead of necessary maintenance and repairs.

ABOUT Julia Bailey

Avatar photoJulia Bailey is a Chicago-based B2B writer whose articles have appeared in "American Gas Magazine" and other publications serving the energy industry. She has also written articles, white papers and case studies for leading marketers in the financial, tech and healthcare spaces, including Bank of America, Discover Card, Motorola, Zebra Technologies, and many hospital publications. Prior to working as an independent writer, Julia led creative teams at J. Walter Thompson and other Chicago agencies. An avid reader, jazz lover and baseball fan, she can see Wrigley Field from her apartment.