This post was co-written by NextDrop’s Jessica Tsai and Madhusudhan B.

NextDrop, which informs residents in India via cell phone about the availability of piped water, has been fortunate enough to have the full and sincere cooperation of Chandru, one of the best valvemen in Hubli. It’s incredibly helpful to work with someone so willing to share the know-hows of the water system here, because the on-paper description of the process is much different than what actually goes on.

Chandru let us tag along as he opened and closed a myriad of valves in his water areas, providing service to residents who (after more than 20 years of seeing him around) know him by name. As usual, we learned much more than we expected — and we’re sharing that process of discovery because it’s interesting, and even lots of fun.

A day in the life

From what we could tell, Chandru’s service period starts with a call from the section officer and lasts around 48 hours. The section officer will tell Chandru that it’s his turn to provide water to his residents. This call is actually pretty important, because different valvemen in Hubli take turns providing service to their areas to maintain ample water pressure — or no one will get water. After this call, Chandru has around 40 valve areas to give water to, each with its own valve. He’ll usually open valves for three or four areas at a time, and leave them on for 4-5 hours each.

As we followed Chandru on his rounds, we learned that water pressure is incredibly important for water delivery, and is one of the reasons service is provided erratically at times.

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Chandru opening valves.

Lingaraj Nagar North, for example, is located uphill, so Chandru leaves this valve open for 7-8 hours instead of four. But, because of the pressure needed for the water to reach up the slope, residents in Lingaraj Nagar North only get 3-4 good hours of water (when some other valves have been closed). The distribution within Lingaraj Nagar North itself is also varied — people living more uphill get less water than those living downhill near the supply. In cases like these, NextDrop can send a notification that the valve has been open, but some residents won’t actually get water because of insufficient pressure.

In the opposite case when an area is located more downhill, instead of shortening the time a valve is open, Chandru will only open a valve two-thirds of the way for the same amount of time. This is also to regulate the amount of pressure so that the pipes don’t burst due to excess pressure. The pipes are really old. If a customer calls Chandru to complain about lack of water, he can open the valve a little bit more or longer.

We should mention that Chandru doesn’t use any fancy instruments to measure the pressure in the pipes underground. He depends on none other than the rod used to open valves — and his ears! The valve itself is at the end of a small 2-foot deep shaft, reachable only by a rod.

The sound of water

Chandru will put his ear to the end of the rod and gauge the pressure by the sound of water rushing by. It’s actually quite loud when the sound travels to the end of the rod. We got to have a listen ourselves.

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Unkal Lake valves.

We also got a tour of the old water tank in between valves.

The tanks have supplied water to all of Hubli for 99 years. Its 100th birthday is next year. The tanks are a pair of 20-foot-deep underground structures that each have a huge valve opening at the bottom, where lake water pushes upwards. The valve openings are about the size of sewage openings in the United States.

These two wheels open the valves, which currently work to drain nearby Unkal Lake.

The goal is to reach the mud at the bottom of the lake for construction, and next monsoon season will fill the lake back up.

Along for the ride

We weren’t the only ones shadowing Chandru.

Chandru’s been a valveman for over 20 years now — he’s one of the best. So far, he’s also only taken two sick days — in his entire career of working for the water board. The water board makes it a point to have someone shadow Chandru for when he won’t be around to run the water delivery for a huge number of people. Ravi, the water board employee who usually repairs aged pipes, was also along for the ride watching Chandru open and close valves for different areas.

There’s a lot of information to be learned for this job, but no formal training program. The day-to-day details of running water deliveries often isn’t known by those who aren’t out in the field. A lot of information gets lost in between. Watching is the best way to learn, which is why we’re trying to go out and watch the valvemen ourselves.

What we need to understand is how things currently work, so that we can make it as easy as possible for valvemen to adopt the NextDrop system. To us, it looks like organized chaos. Somehow (we’re not quite sure how) progress is being made with text messages and everyday processes. But there’s definitely a method to the madness, and we’re just starting to understand it. Days like today grant us a lot of insight into how to move forward.

You can read about more of these efforts on our NextDrop blog.