Sue Luft knows first-hand about the problems that occur when a community’s well demands for water far exceed the amount of available water. The Paso Robles, Calif. vineyard owner has faced water shortages due to acutely stressed wells in her area and it has seriously impacted her livelihood.
“People have lost their wells due to too much demand for water and they’re paying a lot of money to have water trucked in,” Luft said. Although Luft Vineyards is preparing for getting a new well, in the meantime they’ve cut back on water use because of greater water restrictions. Considering that Luft grows wine grapes on four acres, substantial water restrictions negatively impact grape production and the company’s bottom line. Wanting to avoid these problems in the future, Luft signed up to be one of the first test sites for Wellintel’s new product that allows well owners to check the status of their wells.
Wellintel will be officially launching in early 2014. The company’s founders, Marian Singer and Nicholas Hayes, have been business partners for 12 years. They spent the first of those years working for a marketing research and strategy firm, and turned their focus in the last years to researching groundwater.
“One consistent thing we found around the world as we researched groundwater was that once well construction is finished, most people never think about it again,” said Singer. “But changing climate patterns and increased water demand have changed the water table, which leads to a lot of unnecessary emergency repairs.” Singer and Hayes realized that if they could provide intelligence to well owners about the status of the wells, many of the expenses and headaches associated with these emergency repairs could be prevented.
Creating the Product
Singer and Hayes filed a patent in June 2012 for their concept that they could gather relatively accurate information about wells using low-cost materials and without even touching water.
Singer and Hayes took a crowd-sourcing approach to find the best team to create their device once they realized there was a likely demand for a product that gave real-time updates about well status. They assembled a team of some of the best scientists, designers and engineers across the country, from a variety of diverse fields including geology, hydrology, seismology and weather.
The Wellintel product is a permanent, continuous sensor that is affixed to the well. “It’s a combination of hardware and information technology,” Hayes said. “The old way was to drop a tape into a well to get a one-time reading of the water level, but that was a fairly limited picture.” With the assistance of programs like smartphone apps, well owners can get an instant reading about the status of their well at any time.
Being able to gather information about the status of a well at any given time is an immense diagnostic benefit. Hayes said, “Usually scientists don’t have enough data and have to make projections about what’s happening between data readings. They might only have two readings at fairly distant intervals, which is too sparse and everything between is unknown.”
This knowledge of well conditions is a huge potential benefit for homeowners. “We really wanted to make this as consumer focused as possible and to empower well owners to know what’s happening on their land and save money on emergency services,” Hayes said. “For example, you can lower a pump to avoid breakage if you see that water levels are getting low. When you have that knowledge in a community, you can get more support for conservation policies.”
Although the Wellintel sensor is being tested first in residential wells, it also has a lot of potential implications that may benefit commercial wells. “Farmers are often asked to determine how much water they use [particularly during times of water shortages],” Singer said, but that information can be difficult to find without a sensor.
Hayes points out that the sensor itself is universal and can work across both residential and agricultural well types, although it is not applicable for high-cap municipal water systems.
What’s Unique about It
Wellintel has the potential to change groundwater management, simply because it gives homeowners much more accurate information than has been available in the past. The Wellintel sensor doesn’t touch water, which is historically fairly unusual. “Typically, the sensors that didn’t touch water haven’t been very accurate, and it was really important to us to develop something that did provide a high level of accuracy,” Hayes said.
More accurate systems also provide a broader base of information about the status of the well. “It’s vital that the consumer can see where the water is in the well, when the pump runs and how long it takes the water to recover,” Hayes said. This information can also be tracked over time, so well owners can get a year-over-year picture that may help them notice gradual changes and anticipate future problems.
Homeowners always have control over the information the device yields, which is an important issue for those who have privacy concerns. The data is encrypted and well owners share the information about the state of their well with well servicers only if and when they choose,
though it’s anticipated that many will want well servicers kept in the loop for monitoring.
Uses for Prevention and Cost Savings
As Sue Luft knows, replacing a well is an extremely expensive project, which is one of the big advantages she sees to the Wellintel system. “Having a device that lets you know your water level means that you can lower the pump before it blows, or prepare for an upcoming well replacement,” Luft said.
In highly stressed water tables like the Paso Robles area, groundwater availability can change alarmingly fast. “Our wells dropped 118 feet this year,” Luft said. “We always conserved water, but our water levels dropped so quickly this summer that it was hard to catch up.”
Dropping water levels are not just a problem because of reduced volume, but also because the very deep water in Luft’s area is poor quality and mixes with the good quality water. “The very deep water is high in boron, which is toxic to grapevines,” Luft said. Too much boron in the groundwater could wipe out an entire year’s crop, for example. Being able to see low water levels could actually save a farmer’s crops before it’s too late and prevent the resulting economic losses.
Benefits for Servicers
The information gathered by the Wellintel system can be used to help well servicers be more efficient, as well. Hayes said, “Imagine that a well service company might have an online dashboard of the customers’ wells that helps them pinpoint problems, offer higher-value preventive maintenance services and even be able to run important diagnostics before a service call, saving time and money. So yes, while well servicers might enjoy the extra sales that come from Wellintel devices, the key is that the information that the customer shares with them will help them offer much better customer service and improve their own operations.”
Bottom Line Impact
Factors like climate change and greater water demands are causing shifts in water tables around the world. While homeowners could keep their heads in the figurative sand in the past about the status of their wells, today the consequences of not knowing are much greater.
Although prevention is an important and useful goal, the company knows that it may take time for the marketplace to become aware of the usefulness and need for the product. “The vast majority of our devices will be sold after a maintenance event,” Singer said.
However, it may not take long for consumers to learn the value of such a product, simply because maintenance emergencies are unfortunately so common. “There are 12 million wells in the U.S. and 45 million people depend on groundwater,” Hayes said. “Each year, 8 percent of those wells will have some kind of maintenance event.”
Knowledge is power, and having more information about the state of a well can put all the tools in a homeowner’s or business owner’s hands to avoid emergency maintenance costs and implement more effective groundwater management. “If this works out, and I think it will, it will be an excellent value,” Luft said.