Primodal Inc.’s water quality monitoring device is now robust enough to take on the harsh conditions of the real world thanks to nearly two years of testing at one of the Grand River Conservation Authority’s (GRCA) monitoring stations.

In May 2013, the Hamilton-based company became the first Southern Ontario Water Consortium (SOWC) user to access the GRCA’s continuous water quality monitoring stations with the goal of testing and demonstrating its new real-time water monitoring and data evaluation product.

“There are things that can happen in the real world that you would never predict or encounter in a controlled setting” says John Copp, one of the two principals at Primodal, an environmental consulting firm offering modelling and monitoring solutions for biological systems. “You can build something and think it will work, but then once it’s out in the field you learn differently. Having the opportunity to test and demonstrate this technology in the field has helped us identify a lot of problems that we have now solved.”

The monitoring device is a 3 ft by 3 ft by 1 ft unit designed for temporary use in a variety of environments. It can be outfitted with sensors and programmed to detect and measure certain water quality information based on what a client is interested in. The unit runs on the company’s software, PrecisionNow, which controls the collection, analysis and storage of data. The data can be read on site and is also sent through a wireless connection to Primodal’s head office. In addition to collecting, analyzing and storing information, the software can also send out warnings through emails and text messages to notify a user when the data appears abnormal.

“The unit is durable enough to go into a treatment plant but it’s also effective in testing surface water,” says Copp. “It’s a self-contained monitoring system that is a cheaper option for someone who wants to monitor a particular location for a short period of time. By having a temporary monitoring system, they don’t have to invest in a new sensor. We bring the monitoring station to them, drop it in, collect the data and then pull it out.”

Although Copp was able to prove the effectiveness of the technology in certain controlled scenarios, the unit had yet to experience the volatile environment of a river. So with the help of SOWC, Copp was connected with the GRCA and provided access to its monitoring station at Brant Park.

The site is one of nine set up along the river where GRCA measures water temperature, conductivity, pH and dissolved oxygen levels. The information collected goes into models that help inform the GRCA in its watershed management. The GRCA recognized that access to its field monitoring sites would benefit companies needing to demonstrate monitoring technologies. As a strategic partner in SOWC, the GRCA saw an opportunity to have SOWC facilitate the process.

“The water quality stations have a continuous supply of river water pumped to them year-round,” says Mark Anderson, GRCA water quality engineer. “This infrastructure allows us to apply numerous monitoring systems within the same station and gives us the opportunity to work with companies to test new technologies under real world conditions using our existing platform.”

At this site, the unit was set up to detect and measure nitrate and ammonia levels in the river.

Over the course of the testing period, the technology was exposed to a number of unpredictable situations from power outages to heat waves.

“Having the unit out in the field showed us that the original system wasn’t tough enough,” says Copp. “We had some hardware failures so we were continually tweaking it along the way.”

Initially the unit wasn’t capable of handling power outages and as a result, costly equipment was damaged likely from the surge in electricity when the power was restored, says Copp.

“So we adapted the hardware and put in some safety measures that would clean up the power surge before it hit our equipment. We also put in a battery back-up to help ensure a smooth shut down and a smooth start up.”

Further improvements were made to the unit after a stretch of hot weather during the summer caused the equipment to shut down.

“The system got a lot hotter than we thought it ever would so we had to put in a cooling apparatus.”

In addition to the enhancements made to the hardware, having access to a testing field has allowed Copp and his colleagues to continual make improvements to the software.

They have used the raw data collected at the GRCA site to test new algorithms. These algorithms are designed to detect faults that can occur when collecting real time data, such as a stick or fish hitting the sensor, which can result in an abnormal reading.

“You want to be able to decipher these events and eliminate them from the information collected so we have developed a series of algorithms that basically clean up the noise in the data. With clean data it is easier to analyze and look for patterns. Storing data is the easy part. We are trying to be a bit more clever by providing better data with less post-process effort.”

These algorithms not only clean up the data, but are also an integral part of the unit’s warning system. This system, which was also tested at the site, sends out an alert when the data collected is registering abnormal values.

“We have written algorithms that can recognize errors and send a text message or email only when there is a real issue. The warning system helps you obtain good data. You don’t want to find out a sensor has failed two weeks after it happened because then you have lost two weeks’ worth of data. You also don’t want to be going out to check on the unit when you don’t have to.”

Copp and his colleagues are planning to continue using the site for testing further potential adaptations, including testing the effectiveness of a less expensive type of sensor in the monitoring system. Software developments are anticipated that will allow them to collect and interpret the data from these lower-cost sensors, but this will also have to be put to test in the real world.

Although they anticipate further development and testing to identify new ways of upgrading the system, Copp says the unit is ready for market.

“All the testing we have been able to do has helped us get the product ready to go. The next step is to get it out there and show people what we have.”

The testing and demonstration work done at the site could also have benefits for the GRCA. Staff are in the midst of creating a synopsis of the nitrate and ammonia data collected by the unit and depending on what is found this information could potentially improve the GRCA’s dynamic dissolved oxygen model.

“A focus of the model is to understand oxygen in the river and in order to understand oxygen we need to know the nitrogen and phosphorous levels, which includes nitrate and ammonia,” says Anderson. “If Primodal can demonstrate a new technology that looks at continuous monitoring of nitrate and ammonia levels and improves the data going into our model, then we will definitely take a look at it.”

If you are interested in shaping an industry focused project through one or multiple SOWC facilities and/or partner academic researchers, please contact Brenda Lucas, Executive Director.