Wellntel Aims to Sprout Groundwater Info Market With Sonar Device

6/26/14Follow @XconomyWI

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subscriptions to Wellntel’s aggregate water data for a particular area. These customers could include researchers, municipalities, bond rating and insurance agencies, companies setting up operations in a new city—basically anyone with a vested interest in projecting what will happen to local groundwater, Singer explains.

The information that Wellntel’s sensors would gather simply isn’t available now. Currently, the U.S. Geological Survey database lists more than 850,000 sites where manual measurements of well depth are taken in the field. But fewer than 1,600 of its test locations are equipped with devices able to wirelessly send water level readings to the cloud at frequent intervals. Meanwhile, there’s little information on levels in private wells. As a result, “the amount of data that’s available to anybody—scientists, industry, communities, policymakers, consortiums—of where groundwater is at any given moment is very limited,” says Hayes, Wellntel’s chief technology officer.

Wellntel’s sensors could be used to create a map that tracks and predicts water level changes over time—from both the bird’s eye-view or zoomed in on a 100-meter radius, says Singer, Wellntel’s CEO. “It completely changes the way groundwater modeling can happen.”

The data could aid geological researchers and have an impact on public policy, among other applications.

Consider Wellntel’s pilot project, in which 12 of its devices were installed in private wells in January within a 3-square-mile area in Paso Robles, a central California city known for its wine. Paso Robles has been facing a water crisis because of dropping groundwater levels, leading to fights over how to manage the groundwater that remains. Singer and Hayes connected with the leader of PRO Water Equity, a volunteer coalition of residents and farmers that depend on the Paso Robles Groundwater Basin, to recruit well owners for the pilot project. Wellntel also partnered with UC-Berkeley’s Miller and Raj Singh, a post-doctoral student who has incorporated Wellntel’s data in his models that simulate long-term changes in groundwater levels, among other geological measurements.

Wellntel pilot projectWellntel’s devices have shown that the Paso Robles water table continues to drop. The project’s 12 wells were previously tapping water from an average of about 300 feet below the ground’s surface, but since January the water table has dipped between 15 and 25 feet, Hayes says.

“The drought is real, and we’re seeing it in this information,” Hayes says.

Wellntel’s data give well owners facts about what’s happening below the surface mid-drought, so people can take that information to their city council or state legislators and help shape better-informed policy, Singer says.

Hayes likens groundwater to “nature’s bank account for water,” from which humans make withdrawals and, over time, nature deposits more water underground. Some states, like Wisconsin, have laws requiring people to log how much groundwater they extract for irrigation, with permits required for significant withdrawals.

“But without information about what’s on the supply side, you can’t have a smart approach to what the limit might be,” Hayes says. That’s where Wellntel’s device comes in, he adds. “It’s a much smarter way of thinking about the resource.”

Right now, Wellntel’s product is still in beta testing, but the company intends to have it on the commercial market by the end of the year. The device will cost $380 to $480 for homeowners and up to $2,000 per well for systems of larger, coordinated wells, like on large irrigated farms in remote locations. (The price primarily varies depending on the distance needed to transmit data from the well—where the sensor unit sits—to the home or building where a cloud device is plugged into an electrical outlet.)

Wellntel isn’t the first to use sonar to measure groundwater levels, but competing approaches have struggled to distinguish between water and surrounding obstructions, like rocks or noise, the company says. Wellntel solved this problem with more sophisticated technology that emits a digital signal and establishes a baseline measurement that gradually improves as it detects movement in the water level. With “a whole bunch of readings over time,” the device can tell which is the groundwater and which is obstruction “because the groundwater is the only thing that moves,” Hayes says.

Some competing devices include water level sensors that are submerged in well water, meaning they can take a beating over time. Wellntel’s device avoids such wear and tear because it sits on top of the well, the company says.

That could prove an important selling point to homeowners, who sometimes aren’t keen on dropping equipment down their well, says Tim Grundl, a professor in University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee’s School of Freshwater Sciences and geosciences department, who has advised Wellntel.

“This just makes it much easier and more palatable for well owners,” Grundl says.

The device is also easy for consumers to install using a household pipe wrench, Hayes says.

Once Wellntel starts selling its product, its goal is to form a dense network of groundwater-monitoring devices—350,000 in the U.S. within four or five years—pumping out real-time data about individual wells. Achieving that scale will be challenging, Singh says. And the challenges don’t end there. If Wellntel … Next Page »

Jeff Engel is the editor of Xconomy Wisconsin. Email: jengel@xconomy.com Follow @XconomyWI

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