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Alums Build Smart Sewers to Prevent Sewage Overflow

Written by: Marijke Wijnen

When Tim Ruggaber needs inspiration to complete a difficult task, he looks out one of EmNet’s many windows at the blue green waters of the St. Joseph River. The river reminds him of the importance of the work that he and his coworkers are doing -- annually EmNet prevents 1 billion gallons of untreated runoff and sewage from flowing into the river.

Before EmNet’s founding, South Bend, Indiana had a serious sewage problem like many cities of its size across the nation. These cities have combined systems, meaning that the same pipes carry sewage from homes and drainage from roads. Ideally, everything goes through the water treatment plant. However, if the system reaches capacity, particularly during rain events, untreated overflow, termed combined sewage overflow (CSO), is dumped into waterways to prevent backup into people’s homes. Under threat from the EPA, many cities are addressing this problem by building larger sewer systems, which is extremely expensive and disruptive to communities.

EmNet is making a name for itself by making sewers smarter instead of bigger. The goal is to increase storage capacity given existing infrastructure, instead of undertaking unnecessary costly building projects.

Ruggaber describes it this way: “You have the same pipes in the ground that were built one hundred years ago, that’s not changing. It’s like a chessboard, a chessboard is not going to change, but what you do with it can.”

Luis Montestruque with EmNet's software engineer Fred Myers.
Luis Montestruque with EmNet's software engineer Fred Myers.

EmNet does this by installing a system of sensors and control gates that communicate with each other online and in real time. If one area of the sewers is at capacity, but another area has extra space, the information from these sensors are compiled and the system sends out commands to open and close the appropriate gates, so that the whole system is at capacity before anything is released into surrounding waterways. In addition, the sensors can detect buildup and blockages that otherwise would go unnoticed. Occasionally EmNet advises its clients to build new infrastructure, but since the system is understood inside-out through their extensive monitoring system, they are able to design strategic infrastructure changes that optimize capacity at a fraction of the cost and effort of traditional overhauls.

EmNet was born through a collaboration between the city of South Bend and Notre Dame’s College of Engineering. A group of electrical engineers at Notre Dame, funded by the Department of Defense, were developing smart devices that could talk to each other in order to locate and track enemy combatants. After that project ended, Professor Michael Lemmon, one of the electrical engineering professors reached out to Professor Jeffrey Talley, a civil engineering professor, because he wanted to find a civilian, peacebuilding purpose for the technology.

They convinced Luis Montestruque, an electrical engineering PhD student with an entrepreneurial streak, to commercialize this technology. Montestruque formed EmNet, which stands for Embedded Networks. Montestruque joined forces with engineers from a range of disciplines, including Tim Ruggaber, a double domer who studied civil engineering at Notre Dame.

South Bend, Indiana was EmNet’s pilot project and is now the most densely monitored sewer system in the country. Over the years they have completely eliminated dry weather overflow into the St. Joseph River, which weaves through the heart of South Bend, and have significantly reduced wet weather overflow. In addition they have saved South Bend taxpayers significant amounts of money by eliminating the need for expensive infrastructure overhauls. Montestruque, who has two young boys, is excited that this taxpayer money could be redirected towards other projects:

“I cannot take my kids to play in a sewer pipe or a tank, so can we better the environment and solve all of these problems in a smart way, so that those dollars can be spent on things that we as citizens can all enjoy such as parks and green infrastructure?”

EmNet is continuing to work with South Bend to optimize the city’s sewers. But in the meantime, EmNet has expanded and is working with cities from coast-to-coast, including San Francisco, CA, Buffalo, NY and Dayton, OH.

Jon Schommer, who studied civil engineering, is the newest Notre Dame graduate to join the EmNet team. For him a big draw of working at EmNet is the company's culture:

“I really like startup culture - work really hard and then see a big reward at the end. And it’s cool to have that culture, but with a focus on the reward of taking care of this huge social problem.”

It is clear being in their office that the EmNet employees care about each other and the work that they are doing. And outside their window, the St. Joseph River flows by with a fraction of the E. coli that it contained twelve years ago and a burgeoning fish population thanks to their work.

Carrie Malli and Ruben Kertesz, two members of the EmNet team, discuss design plans.
Carrie Malli and Ruben Kertesz, two members of the EmNet team, discuss design plans.