Water World: Sam Hatchett's software breakthrough impacts Cincinnati, Flint and beyond

Somewhere beneath the streets of Cincinnati, 48 billion gallons of water pump continuously through 3,000 miles of pipes, bringing clean water to residents and businesses across the region. It’s a utility system that residents take for granted here in the 21st Century and something most know or care little about.
Environmental engineer Sam Hatchett of Citilogics understands municipal water systems better than most.

He’s developed a software program that helps water utilities nationwide analyze their systems for quality control, waste-reduction and maximized output. He makes it possible to see on a computer screen what’s happening underground in real time, and his software has caught the eye of local, national and international entities, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).

The USEPA is implementing Hatchett’s software tool right now in Flint, Mich., to help fix the municipal water system compromised by lead contamination. The work is a prime example of what his business partner calls Hatchett’s “very strong sense of right and wrong — and his ‘right’ is almost always right.”

The way things work
Sam Hatchett understands the way things work, mechanically speaking.

Growing up in Lubbock, Tex., a child of independent veterinarians, he was offered endless opportunities for hands-on experience. In addition to the day-to-day life of a “mom and pop” clinic, his parents provided a supply of building materials for his use — cardboard, scotch tape, broken electronics, etc.
“I learned quickly how to take almost anything apart and often used the pieces to invent new things,” he remembers. “There is a story often told of when I was perhaps 8 years old. I dismantled a 35mm motorized camera and up-cycled the electric motor and batteries to power a tiny self-driving car fashioned mostly out of cardboard, paperclips and rubber bands. So engineering was probably destiny for me.”
Hatchett graduated from Texas Tech University in 2004 with a degree in Mechanical Engineering, but job prospects in his field at the time were disappointing. He didn’t want to practice engineering for the sake of engineering — he wanted to use his skills for something significant.

He worked in information technology for a few years, when he learned a bit about software engineering. Then, in 2006, he met a woman in Cincinnati and made the move across the country. They were married a year later.
While trying to find his footing in a new city, Hatchett discovered a University of Cincinnati professor who was developing a way to use computational methods and simulation software to address problems in public water systems. The work caught his attention, and he applied (and was accepted into) the PhD program at UC in 2007.

Hatchett’s graduate studies were infused with lofty goals. Part of his program was funded by the USEPA’s Office of Research and Development (National Homeland Security Research Center, Water Infrastructure Protection Division). Basically, he was involved in research for the government agency responsible for protecting the country’s water systems.
After the 9/11 attacks, the EPA took a hard look at the potential vulnerability of the nation’s water utilities and started developing a way to both analyze the systems as they are currently functioning and prepare for their risks and potential failures. The most commonly used assessment models to date had been mathematical and theoretical, and their accuracy was questionable.
Hatchett’s UC research and development resulted in a free open-source software that channels a utility’s actual outputs into real-time data that can be used in an endless number of ways. While the USEPA may have been concerned with emergency situations and environmental conditions, other water utilities may need the data for tracking energy usage, finding leakages and testing water quality.

Bringing technology to the market
Jim Uber is co-founder of the Northern Kentucky environmental engineering firm Citilogics. While Hatchett was completing his PhD, the company was establishing itself as a sort of “boutique consulting company.”

Uber and business partner Stu Hooper saw a pilot demonstration of Hatchett’s software at the Northern Kentucky Water District and were duly impressed.
“Sam was doing his PhD and focusing on developing software to do real-time predictions of water pressures, flows and quality in buried infrastructure systems, the sort that lie underneath our feet nearly everywhere and deliver clean water from the treatment plant to customers,” Uber says. “The thing is, lots of things are changing that affect these complicated systems minute by minute — water usage at hundreds of thousands of homes, the settings and statuses of hundreds of control valves and pumps.

“(With this software) those things could be estimated from real-time data streams and then combined with engineering models to produce predictions that are sufficiently accurate. That was never done before. … It was a perfect blend of theory and pushing the practical envelope of what was actually done in the industry.”
Hatchett spoke with Uber and Hooper about the potential of creating a commercial application of the software and bringing it to the water utility market. In 2012, Hatchett officially joined the Citilogics team and began work on a marketable product, called Polaris, that would introduce this new technology to the public and allow water utilities of all sizes to customize their use of the data as desired.
Greater Cincinnati Water Works (GCWW) was one of Citilogics’ charter group of customers for the Polaris software. It’s currently using the tool to analyze water loss, hydraulic data for system operators and chlorine levels. Although significant, in a way it’s only scratching the surface of what Polaris offers.
Verna Arnette, Deputy Director of Operations at GCWW, sees potential for improvement in Cincinnati’s municipal water system through the Polaris software.
“We have yet to fully leverage our enterprise systems and the scores of data that are collected,” she says. “For example, the Water Loss tool is planned to be connected to our customer billing system data. A prospective and retrospective analysis tool is being discussed to help investigate system conditions for hydraulics and water quality in response to operational changes and emergencies. This would be helpful for operators and managers to better determine the impact of these types of incidents and to try out various proactive or corrective responses for their effectiveness.”
Other potential uses include more frequent real time data including water consumption, weather patterns, energy usage and asset condition monitoring. There are theoretical applications as well.

“We are also planning for use of the software as an operator training tool similar to a flight simulator where operators can ‘operate’ the system in a safe, learning environment,” Arnette says.
The applications of this technology, it seems, are endless.

Different kind of engineer
Almost two years ago, Hooper died suddenly while on vacation with his family. His death was a significant blow to the small Citilogics company and a huge personal loss for Hatchett and Uber.
“Stu was foremost a close friend,” Hatchett says, “but he was also the steady hand of the company, a gifted engineer and managed all of our business logistical details.”
Now just an operation of two, Citilogics entered “a dark time” after Hooper’s death but has emerged stronger. Hatchett has finally found the practical use for his engineering skills that he always wanted, and Uber couldn’t be happier having him on-board.
“A good word to describe Sam is ‘smart,’ but he’s not pure nerdy smart,” Uber says. “He’s smart in technology as well as how it can be and should be helpfully used. Lots of people are really smart in terms of technology, but it’s far more rare to find that combined with a strong sense of why technology should be used and how it should be designed to help people. I don’t know if Sam was born that way or otherwise, but I suspect that it’s a byproduct of really knowing what you are doing and really caring about what you are doing.”
Hatchett may be an engineer first and an entrepreneur second, but he’s also an idealist. He believes in the value of this technology and isn’t interested in moving on until his system is perfected.

“I’m pushing this as far as it will go,” he says, “and I’m not really thinking about what may come after.”
There is still much room for development in the marriage between technology and environmental engineering, but these innovations could have significant impact on one of the most basic human needs — clean and accessible water. As the Flint water crisis proves, many municipal water systems are vulnerable to human error and technical loose ends. His particular technology is still young, but it may be the most efficient and accurate way to analyze these complex systems.
In addition the environmental impacts on water, which Polaris addresses specifically, there is a lot of fine-tuning to be done in the ways utility networks function and are managed. This is why engineers like Hatchett are a valuable asset.
“You can imagine me, quite literally, as the person who walks around with a screwdriver just in case there’s something that needs to be tightened,” he says.
Ten years and over 1,000 miles from Texas, Hatchett has found his “big idea” and made Cincinnati his home. He lives in Norwood with his wife Betty, who works from home as an artist, and recently welcomed a baby boy, Newton, into the family.
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Liz McEwan is a proud wife, mama, urbanite, musician and blogger. Follow her at The Walking Green and on twitter at @thewalkinggreen.