Spreadsheets vs. Software: The 4 Biggest Risks of Using Excel for Utilities

Although spreadsheets are lightweight and easy to use, they're no replacement for dedicated software. Here's why.


Until a few years ago, no single piece of software brought together all of the information and functions crucial to running a water and wastewater utility.

Clunky legacy solutions often fell short or left gaps. Operators had to make due with haphazard, improvised solutions instead like:

  • Manual SCADA Exports
  • Post-it Notes
  • Desk Drawers Stuffed with Documents
  • Spreadsheets That Don’t Sync Up

But as more of our work moves online and low-cost digital tools have become widely available, the excuses for managing mission-critical information in this way are quickly running out.

Modern cloud-based software like Klir is making it easier than ever to capture what happens in our organizations faster, more reliably, and more safely than spreadsheets. All within a single, easy to use, dedicated platform.

As more water utility operators engage in digital transformation projects, it pays to ask the question: what exactly are we missing out on by sticking to our spreadsheets?

1. Hemorrhaging Critical Information and Losing Work

Spreadsheets are a leaky medium in general: when we start relying on them to organize critical processes or store large amounts of data, some of it inevitably gets lost.

Permitting is a common example of this. Many larger utilities often find themselves having to manage, catalogue, and maintain thousands of permits at a time. But when that documentation lives in dozens of different spreadsheets scattered across dozens of different computers, permitting data often gets duplicated, overwritten, misplaced, or lost entirely. That's because spreadsheets:​

  • Often rely on memory, specifically the memory of the person who initially created, formatted, named, and stored the spreadsheet.
  • Become increasingly unstandardized as team members come up with their own private ways of storing information in them.
  • Don’t automatically sync leaving documentation prone to confusing duplication, errors, and accidental deletion.
  • Force team members into an opaque environment defined by information silos, rather than a single source of truth.

As the water industry confronts the ‘silver tsunami,’ the pressure for utilities to come up with a less leaky system for managing permitting and other kinds of mission-critical information is only increasing.

2. Losing Time on Repetitive Tasks

Spreadsheets tend to be popular with smaller or new organizations because they appear, at least initially, to take less time to set up than a dedicated information management system.

But the irony is that as the amount of information we store in them increases, spreadsheets take more time to maintain, not less. That's because spreadsheets:​

  • Don’t automatically populate, forcing employees to spend more time on data entry, pulling them away from more important tasks.
  • Are difficult or impossible to integrate with other systems, such as scheduling software, email, GIS, SCADA, LIMS—and even other spreadsheets.
  • Aren’t custom built for water. As the complexity and variety of tasks in our spreadsheets increases, the more work they take to set up and maintain.

3. Creating Data Hesitancy

Another symptom of spreadsheet reliance is that your staff is never fully confident in their information. That's because spreadsheets:​

  • Live offline, decreasing accessibility and transparency.
  • Belong to different owners, increasing the risk of duplication and redundancy.
  • Have no restrictions around version control, making mistakes hard to flag or trace back to their source.
  • Usually contain out-of-date data, as they lack real-time capabilities.

4. Contain out-of-Date Data, as They Lack Real-Time Capabilities​

In addition to being unreliable, spreadsheets simply aren’t as secure as the purpose-built tools that water operators have at their disposal today.

Whether you’re sharing spreadsheets over email or constantly swapping Excel files using local drives, spreadsheets create an information ecosystem that is difficult to secure, leaving your data vulnerable.

Why Does Software Beat Spreadsheets Every Time?​

Enter modern cloud-based water operating systems (OS) like Klir. We fix these problems by providing a secure, centralized repository for critical reporting data and information crucial to plant operations.

By liberating information from spreadsheets and managing it this way, water utilities can:

1. Cut Down on Data Loss and Ambiguity

Dedicated platforms create a central, secure, and reliable collection point for all of your information, enabling you to:

  • Simplify reporting and cataloguing, reducing the risk of duplicate or lost information. 
  • Reduce risk of regulatory violations by processing data in real time and creating a reliable source for compliance information. 
  • Liberate and preserve institutional knowledge by putting all of the utility’s critical assets in one easy to access location.

2. Save Time Through Automation​​

Software like Klir is built for tasks like permitting and sampling, making it easier to automate data collection and analysis, enabling users to:

  • Automatically track and update tasks and targets in real time.
  • Generate actionable reports with minimal effort.
  • Rely on built-in failsafes that protect and ensure the integrity of your assets.

3. Enable Collaborative, Confident Asset Building​

Unlike spreadsheets, dedicated software platforms enable collaboration and information exchange in real time, creating an environment that encourages staff to build and take care of information assets, rather than making it a chore.

Solutions like Klir allow water operators to build and share a single source of truth with their colleagues, removing the possibility of ambiguity and duplicates and giving operators confidence in their data.

4. Better Accommodate Growth and Find New Efficiencies​​

Using spreadsheets is a bit like looking at your organization through a keyhole. Centralizing and cataloguing your information using a dedicated platform, on the other hand, is like zooming out to get the full picture.

Aggregating information this way and looking at it through intuitive analytics tools opens up an entirely new world of possibilities for plant operators.

For the first time, you can see where trends intersect to identify cause/effect relationships and gain efficiency by identifying overlap in your internal processes. And as the amount of information your organization generates grows, those insights will only grow stronger.

The Bottom Line

Although spreadsheets are a lightweight, easy to use starting point, they quickly become a breeding ground for errors and data loss as demands grow. The time we spend maintaining them increases, and reporting confidence decreases.

Frustrated with spreadsheets? It’s time to start managing your operations data in a sustainable way that is built for the long term.

Klir is a dedicated platform that gives your team complete confidence that you’re compliant today, so you can plan for tomorrow.

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