EOS International, a nonprofit social enterprise, operates in Central America to provide rural communities with access to safe drinking water, ultimately laying the foundation for a stronger, more prosperous society. EOS has deployed a remote water quality monitoring pilot in a rural Nicaraguan community, with plans to scale up to hundreds of locations, using Digi XBee® 3 Cellular LTE Cat 1 connectivity to dramatically improve water quality while driving down operational costs.
Wes Meier was sick of being sick. The Peace Corps volunteer stationed in San Jose, Nicaragua, initially chalked it up to the food, before gradually uncovering the true root of the problem. “I was told we had clean water, and I lived under that assumption,” he said. “But after a few bad bouts of digestive issues, I decided to follow the local water pipe to its source. The plumber showed me how he put one bag of bleach into the tank each month — essentially a shock treatment. So most days, water was either over-chlorinated or contaminated. That piped water simply wasn’t safe to drink.”
Water is a resource that much of the world population takes for granted; but for more than 40 percent of communities in Central America, reliable access to safe drinking water — free from disease-causing bacterial contaminants — is unobtainable. Meier was determined to change that.
“We looked at water quality in neighboring communities and found that more than 85 percent of them consumed water contaminated with E. coli and other bacteria. Most of the population lives in impoverished rural areas, where access to basic services is limited and where few businesses and NGOs travel regularly. And a lack of clean drinking water also holds them back from generating income and rising out of poverty. In fact, Nicaragua and Honduras are some of the poorest countries in the Western Hemisphere, with 50 percent of the rural population living below the national poverty line. Following my Peace Corps days, I founded EOS International to tackle these problems.”
With an on-the-ground staff of 12 in Nicaragua and eight in Honduras, EOS develops and implements technology solutions to track, evaluate, and revisit community installations to ensure a long-term, positive impact. Strong partnerships with local communities, nonprofits, universities, and governmental organizations have played a key role in its mission of building stronger, healthier water supplies. “We explain that clear water isn’t necessarily safe, and we provide these communities with expertise, troubleshooting, and monitoring using our labs and field tests,” he said, “But as we grew, we ran into scalability challenges.”
Most water-quality issues can be successfully and quickly addressed with simple chlorine treatments, using tablets similar to those that keep swimming pools clean and clear. However, instead of a monthly shock treatment, the better answer is to set and maintain smaller continual dosages of chlorine to account for variables such as weather and consumption rates.
Previously, water-monitoring required visits from EOS’s water technicians to perform manual tests. Those technicians crossed rugged terrain to visit hundreds of remote communities, some of which are accessible only via horseback, just to test water quality and prescribe the next dose of chlorine. While helpful, those tests failed to account for daily variability in water quality. A community could go days, weeks, or even an entire month without a visit from an EOS technician to provide new data about its current water quality, leaving open potentially dangerous vulnerabilities.
When Meier consulted Dr. Craig Just, professor, and Megan Lindmark, a Ph.D. student, from the University of Iowa, it was an ideal collaboration. “I am a big water guy,” Just explained. “I am into the chemistry and microbiology of water, and we both understood how important water disinfection is in developing countries. We figured that if we could use sensors to detect and report water quality in real time, the EOS techs could operate far more effectively. We could prevent needless visits, save time and money, and improve the quality of the water.”
Just and Lindmark devised a solution for monitoring these remote locations: Outfit each site with a small number of sensors that can nearly continuously measure pH, oxidation-reduction potential, chlorine, flow rates, and tank levels. Those readings are recorded every two minutes. Four times an hour, those readings are transmitted to the University of Iowa, where Just and Lindmark perform analyses and visualizations of the water quality and chemistry. If adjustments are needed, they send a text message to staff.
One of the keys to the EOS solution is the Digi XBee 3 Cellular modem that provides the connectivity to send data from far-flung, remote locations. Built on industry-leading technology, pre-certified Digi XBee 3 modems enable engineers to quickly and easily add wireless connectivity to a broad range of applications with the flexibility to switch between multiple frequencies and wireless protocols as needed. They’re ideal for moderate bandwidth (typically < 25 MB/month) and low-cost IoT applications. With Digi Remote Manager®, Digi XBee 3 modules can be easily configured and controlled from a central platform. Built-in Digi TrustFence® security, identity and data privacy features use multiple layers of control to protect against new and evolving cyber threats.
Lindmark started prototyping with a Digi dev board and soon had a proof of concept. “It was all plug-and-play right out of the box,” she said. “It was easy to use the accessories and tools and easy to transmit location information. I’m not an electrical engineer, but I could quickly understand how to use everything.”
Now, thanks to Internet-connected sensors powered by solar panels and 12 V car batteries, EOS is changing the very nature of water safety, enabling these remote and low-income municipalities to achieve the water safety needed to help improve the health of the communities. EOS personnel can avoid wasted trips to sites that are within tolerance, and communities enjoy consistently clean water.
“This solution is providing a critical service at a cost that they can sustain,” said Meier. “This is a tipping point that is changing lives. And, thanks to this efficient technology, we’re now poised to achieve this on a scalable, sustainable basis.”
From here, EOS aims to secure funding from government agencies and NGOs to support additional implementations and license the solution to commercial distributors.