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Dan Lopez16 Mar, 2021

Dan vs. the storm

How I used the PI System to recover from the Texas freeze
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It was February 19th, 2021 and I’d just put our 9-month-old daughter down for her morning nap. I knew from experience (learned the hard way) that I’d need to remain quiet and out of sight for a few more minutes before trying to stealthily exit her room. So, I pulled out my phone and connected to the server that ran our home's PI System. As an OSIsoft engineer, I'm lucky enough to have access to cutting edge technology that has allowed me to make the most of my home's data. So, full of hope and full of nerves, I resumed the project that we hoped would help protect our house from the winter storm raging around us.

According to data from our backyard weather station, the temperature directly outside our house had remained below freezing for over one week. Five days ago, the below-ground water flow sensor that we’d installed on our water main to help us be more efficient about our water usage had finally succumbed to the cold. The home PI System had pinged my phone with the text message “Data flatline detected for Flume Water.” Upon seeing that, I realized that we were facing the very serious possibility of our water pipes freezing—and perhaps even bursting.

Taking turns watching our two kids, my wife and I followed all the recommendations for safeguarding our pipes. Municipal water service had cut out two days prior, and we were rationing bottled water and melting snow for our toilets, sorely longing for our taps to work again. With the possibility of one or more frozen, burst pipes lurking undiscovered in our house, we were starting to worry about what we would find once water service was restored.

We had real reason to worry. Far before the winter storm, earlier in the year, it had been exhausting having to repair a hidden water leak under our shower. Forearmed with that experience, we knew that it was incredibly important for us to be able to respond as quickly as humanly possible to any new leaks that appeared once we got water service back.

That’s why, crouched awkwardly behind the crib in my daughter’s nursery, I set up an event-framing analysis to trigger as soon as flow was detected in our water main. With a few more quick taps, I configured a text message to be sent to both our phones once that trigger fired. Checking the baby monitor, I could see that our little girl had drifted off to sleep, so I crept on past and left her nursery.

In the hours that followed, we dug up our frozen water flow sensor, brought it inside, thawed it out, remounted it to our water meter, and verified that it was again streaming data to our server. To be safe, we manually shut off water to the house using the curbside cut-off valve. We resumed rationing water, collecting and melting snow, and waiting both eagerly and nervously for water service to resume.

Finally, on the morning of the 21st, we noticed social media posts from neighboring houses suggesting that water was flowing again. My wife and I each took a deep breath and grabbed our pair of flashlights, and while my wife kept an eye on the kids, I raced outside to cautiously reopen the water cut-off valve. Almost immediately our phones both chirped with the message “(Water Flowing 2021-02-21 09:40:10.000)”—and, as planned, we instantly began racing around the house, sweeping our lights across every surface, all the while ready at a moments’ notice to sprint back to the cut-off valve upon seeing signs of a leak. Not one minute was wasted.

Ultimately, my wife and I consider ourselves incredibly fortunate that all of our plumbing survived intact. We didn’t discover a single burst pipe, and the data from our water flow sensor confirmed that no water was trickling out through any hidden leaks within our walls. That doesn’t mean that I feel like I wasted the minutes I used setting up that early-warning water flow notification. That mentality, of allocating a little bit of effort up front to help mitigate a potential disaster, is one that I have witnessed yield priceless savings for world-class businesses, and I’m grateful to have learned this lesson, so that I can apply it to safeguarding my family’s home.

I am lucky enough to be able do that using PI System software because I work at OSIsoft, where my job is to enable people to make smarter business decisions using real-time data. So yes, while I’m certainly grateful that my particular employer gives me personal access to enterprise-class software, altogether, I have to make sure that I give real credit where it’s due: to the engineers, operators, and analysts out there who are keeping the world running. Those who have taught me the power of data.

Using water flow data-based notifications to better prepare for handling a leak was only the most recent example of the dozens of ways I’ve used data from our house. Earlier during the storm, for instance, in response to statewide requests for decreased energy usage, we used a PI System dashboard of real-time electricity usage data (from the current transducers we’d had installed in our breaker box) to help us drive down our baseline energy usage, netting us nearly a 60% reduction.

As I watch my son and daughter enjoy being outside once more in the beautiful, warm Texas spring weather, I’m trying to not dwell on unpleasant memories of the storm—but I’m also trying to make sure I remember how we found ways to put our home’s sensor data to use. As the days warm up, I hope that anyone who’s interested in applying similar strategies (whether to a house or to a business) can perhaps use this as an example. Life is of course unpredictable (having two kids has certainly taught me that), but it’s comforting and empowering to remember all the brilliant techniques, tools, and technologies that can help.

Dan LopezSr. pre sales engineerDan Lopez lives in Austin, Texas with his wife, two kids, one dog, and over a dozen different IoT sensors. He was born in California, grew up in Missouri, and went back to California for a B.S. and M.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Stanford University. This year will be his tenth working for OSIsoft; when not at work, he enjoys running, soccer, and science fiction.
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