Computer upgrades work wonders in Gibsons and Whistler

A B.C. Water Conservation Survey conducted by the Ministry of Water, Land and Air Protection and the BCWWA’s Water Sustainability Committee shows that 48 percent of utilities have recently upgraded their computer systems, while 19 percent are considering doing so. Not surprisingly, the main stumbling block is cost, with the majority of utilities looking for grants and funding from senior levels of government.

Whether large or small, water utilities rely on computer technology to deliver water safely, effectively, and affordably. Bryan Shoji, Municipal Engineer for the Town of Gibsons says, “Even though we are small [with only two office staff in Public Works], computers do play a huge role in our operation.”

With strong support from the Municipal Council, in the last two years the town has:

  • upgraded 13 desktop computers to IBM P4 systems running Windows XP Pro with LCD Monitors;
  • purchased four laptop computers for various managers;
  • purchased one laptop and multi-media projector for presentations;
  • developed a GIS using ESRI ArcGis including a powerPC workstation; and
  • purchased a new server, and dedicated the old server to GIS.

“Our desktops are on a four-to-five-year replacement cycle,” says Bryan, “and the cycle was up. Many systems were P2 generation and were quite slow. The replacement strategy was also to ensure that we standardized our operating platform and architecture.

“We also entered into an agreement with two other local governments to cost-share the software and development of a web-based GIS portal. We are also developing a SCADA (Supervisory Control and Data Acquisition) system in conjunction with our new wastewater treatment plant this year that should be operational in the fall of 2005. The SCADA system will run our wastewater treatment plant and all major remote sites, including pump stations, wells, and reservoirs.”

This $245,000 program guarantees a smoother running system that Bryan says “has far fewer IT (information technology) hiccups. The LCD monitors use considerably less space and are healthier and easier on the eyes. Laptops provide key staff with the flexibility to perform work at home, on the fly, or when out of town.

“I can’t say enough about GIS…it ensures that all infrastructure information is captured and easily retrievable, it’s a great tool for mapping, and is utilized continuously for infrastructure asset and land management purposes. Consistent computer architecture, operating systems, and software platform has led to less IT downtime and maintenance.”

Bryan notes a few disadvantages, none of which are insurmountable. “You need in-house IT expertise to ensure proper development, implementation, and on-going maintenance. It’s also important to have good outside support. Being slightly remote, due to the ferry, major IT problems could cause our systems to be down for days instead of hours. We are fortunate to have a knowledgeable engineering technologist who acts as our GIS and IT technician. Training costs add up, but it is extremely important to keep up to date with the evolving technologies.

The Resort Municipality of Whistler recently installed a SCADA system, the purpose of which was to design, install, and commission a SCADA alarm, monitoring, and control system for the municipal water distribution and sewer collection utilities. The $600,000 project was completed over a two-year period.

The system consists of five main components:

The Remove Stations (pump stations, reservoirs, pressure-reducing stations, etc.) that contain Remote Terminal Units (RTUs) to monitor or control the local status of the stations. Most alarms are determined in the station using real time information. The RTU response to data request and commands from the Main SCADA computer and the Motorola Communications process. The system automatically sends alarms as they occur.

The Repeater provides a municipal-wide radio communication. The Repeater has redundant radios, power supplies and an uninterruptible Power Supply (UPS) to ensure a high level of service availability.

The MCP-T is the unit that handles all communications between the Primary SCADA computer and the Remote Stations.

The Primary SCADA Computer maintains a real-time database of all the data. This information is displayed on operators’ ‘screens,’ reported to the alarm summaries and histories. Some data is logged into historical databases to provide a chronology of charts of pressures, levels, etc. spanning an extended time period.

The municipality can connect through dial-up connections.

“At the completion of the project,” says Brian Barnett, Engineering and Public Works Manager, “the municipality has a powerful tool to monitor and control the water and sewer system in a manner that was preciously impossible. Operators can have immediate access to controls at a variety of locations through a dial-up connection. This allows for immediate response to emergency situations and problems.

“Additionally, maintenance crews, technicians and management have access to a host of data that was previously unavailable in a digital format. This allows the municipality to analyze trends, review historical data and investigate operating or maintenance problems by reviewing system conditions.

Good Advice for utilities considering upgrades…

Bryan Shoji from Gibsons says, “Technology can improve productivity and service levels if approached in the right manner. It is important to develop a corporate-wide IT strategy before implementing any upgrades. Hire knowledgeable staff who are prepared and willing to grasp new technologies and understand public works-related infrastructure and land-use planning. Ensure that the public works/engineering manager has a good background in asset management principals and understands how technology can be utilized to better manage the infrastructure. Even before implementing computer systems, it’s very important to have good, accurate, organized records that are easily retrievable—the more information that can go into the computer system the better.”

Brian Barnett attributes Whistler’s success to two things: 1) utility operators were involved in the project from “day one” and at every step along the way; and 2) consultants worked on-site at the municipal offices to ensure good communication.

“We now have a tool that provides our operators and managers with more information and more control of the water and sewer utilities. This allows Whistler to control the operating parameters more rigidly and respond quicker to upset conditions. As a result, we have more confidence in the water utility that provides drinking water and fire protection water to Whistler, as well as the sewer utility that conveys sewage to the wastewater treatment plant. The SCADA was a good investment for the municipality.

For more information about the Town of Gibsons, contact Bryan Shoji at 604-886-2274 or

For more information about the Resort Municipality of Whistler, contact Brian Barnett at 604-935-8190 or