Gauging groundwater in real time

When residential well owners want to perform a pump test on their well or determine the properties of the aquifer feeding their well, the process is often a timely and expensive one.

In the past, well owners had to hire a contractor and service provider to come to their property, open their well, stick an instrument known as a pressure transducer into the well to measure the depth of the water, pull it out and download the data, according to Tim Grundl, professor in geosciences and the School of Freshwater Sciences at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee.

“A lot of people don’t want you to put something down their well,” Grundl said.

In fear of contamination and disruption of the pump and any pipes and wires within the well, owners hesitate to let anyone measure their groundwater levels.

“If we had a device that you just strapped to the top of the well and did the same thing, that would be a real nice advantage,” Grundl said.

Nick Hayes and Marian Singer, co-founders of the Milwaukee startup company Wellintel, are developing a device with that design in mind.

“Water quantity sadly isn’t measured,” Hayes said. “It’s one of those things that’s felt, and it’s felt by having water not be available.”

After a residential well is constructed, more than 90 percent of owners don’t monitor how much water exists down in the well, according to Wellintel’s market research.

Hayes describes water quantity as a blind spot in the market.

“It’s really invisible for everybody,” he said.

The Wellintel device, created specifically for consumers with private wells, consists of simple sensors at the top of a well and uses solar power to collect real time groundwater level data and communicate with the homeowner’s WIFI network, according to Singer. The homeowner can then view their data through a secure website or smart phone app and set parameters for email or text updates.

“Ultimately, it’s become a simple and inexpensive device for consumers to use for their own benefit,” Hayes said.

The Wellintel device’s capabilities allow consumers to monitor their personal water consumption as well as the health of the water table under their land. Consumers can also pay attention to the condition of their water pump to help avoid costly repairs, replacements or reconstruction down the road.

Hayes and Singer identified the need for a tool to measure homeowners’ groundwater quantity while working as partners at the Milwaukee-based consulting firm FiveTwelve Group where, for the last five years, they focused on market research in energy and water markets.

The pair’s research efforts centered on helping various Fortune 250 firms in the industrial space make decisions about entering markets or creating new products and services. Through their research process, they gained a better grasp of water and water dynamics.

“While we were doing that work for those different companies, we learned a lot about water and one of the things that became obvious to us is that with water as a ground source no one knew what was going on down there,” Singer said.

In spring 2012, the two began setting their sights on finding a way that was inexpensive, consumer-focused and technology-based in which they could start to develop an understanding of what the homeowner’s groundwater resource looked like.

As they have moved forward in their development of the Wellintel device, they have established an advisory board – on which Grundl of UWM serves – and have partnered with a number of engineering firms located in the Milwaukee area and in Madison that are assisting with both the assembly and implementation of the technology.

Wellintel is currently in a year-long piloting phase in which it is building prototypes and outfitting wells to collect data. In March or April this year, the startup will send 10 to 20 of its beta units to each of two or three pilot sites. The company is currently narrowing down those sites from potential pilot sites in Wisconsin, Indiana, Texas and California.

During the piloting phase, Wellintel will measure groundwater data over time to track trends.

“You need to know a long history of what the normal variation is, so you can compare that to what you’re seeing now,” Grundl said.

Groundwater moves slowly and responds to big rainstorms and seasonal effects like the spring melt, according to Grundl. Without an idea of water’s natural cycle, consumers have no way of knowing if their groundwater levels are normal and healthy at any given time.

Through the piloting process, Wellintel hopes to demonstrate that taking steps to maintain a well with granular information is much more cost effective than taking emergency steps to fix a well, Hayes said.

The company aims to commercially launch the Wellintel device in early 2014 and anticipates that the device will be sold in home improvement centers, farm supply stores and hardware stores and will also be available through companies specializing in well services.

“We aspire to be one of the most important water technology organizations, improving the discussion on groundwater, because groundwater, which is unseen, is therefore misunderstood and at risk,” Hayes said. “Citizens with real time information will become groundwater leaders in their communities.”

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