Think Nationally, Maintain Locally

Oct. 2, 2009

About the author: Mitch Bradley is director of asset management solutions at Accela Inc. Bradley can be reached at 925.577.8236 or by e-mail at [email protected].

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Proactive management of the nation’s water and wastewater assets is a critical issue today, given the growing population nationally and in arid regions like the Southwest. But even in more slowly growing or wetter cities, ever-increasing water usage and aging water assets have made asset management a vital priority in order to maintain clean water standards and conserve dwindling supplies.

According to a 2002 report by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the population of the U.S. increased by 159% from 1950 to 2000, with total water usage in billions of gallons per day increasing by 207% and per-person daily usage by 20%. In the desert Southwest, the statistics are even more acute, with populations in the Las Vegas and Phoenix metro regions mushrooming by nearly 25% and 30% in the past decade alone.

Population is not the only challenge. Increasing usage is compounded by deteriorating infrastructure, resulting in massive water waste across the nation. New York City is in the midst of a highly publicized, multiyear repair to a major water tunnel from its primary reservoir in the Catskill Mountains that is leaking more than 20 million gal per day.

Highly visible deterioration of major infrastructure is only part of the nation’s water problem. Multiple undetected leaks plague urban water systems nationwide. A 2005 private study revealed 43 leaks over 22 miles of pipeline in Dallas, with average water losses per leak of more than 81,000 gal per day. The same study uncovered 10 leaks over three miles in Allentown, Pa., with daily losses averaging 50,000 gal per leak.

These examples are mere snapshots of deteriorating water assets across the nation. The American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) estimates that leaking pipes across the country lose an estimated 7 billion gal of clean drinking water every day.

The Infrastructure Report Card

In its 2009 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure ( the ASCE sounded a clear alarm, issuing an overall grade of “D” for the nation’s infrastructure across all categories and a “D-” for drinking water and wastewater systems.

In particular, the ASCE red-flagged the condition of the nation’s 16,000 wastewater treatment systems. Despite increases in federal, state and local spending on sewer and water systems during the past two decades, the ASCE cited an overall lack of investment in plants, equipment and other capital improvements.

Many systems nationwide have reached the end of their originally designed life cycles, and the EPA estimates that chronic sewer overflows discharge more than 850 billion gal per year. In addition to updating and replacing existing systems and building new ones to meet increasing demand, the ASCE’s 2009 Report Card urged “asset management on a system-wide basis” as a vital component in restoring the reliability of wastewater systems. The ASCE concluded that the U.S. risks reversing the public health, environmental and economic gains of the past three decades unless investment needs of the next 20 years are met.

The story is much the same for drinking water, and here the nation’s burgeoning population plays a major role—as does the investment shortfall to keep up with it. The ASCE estimates an $11-billion annual shortfall to replace aging drinking water facilities that are nearing the end of their useful lives. But the estimate does not account for population-driven growth in the demand for drinking water over the next 20 years. According to the ASCE, agencies face numerous financial, technological and managerial challenges in meeting the growing number of federal drinking water regulations and serving expanding populations.

The Importance of Asset Management

Given this daunting and challenging picture, the importance of water and wastewater asset management is evident. But this is more than a federal government issue. Because there is no national water management body, local and regional governments will be on the front line in finding innovative solutions to the nation’s water challenges. In the years ahead, the U.S. water infrastructure largely will be maintained one county and one municipality at a time. “Think nationally, maintain locally” is an accurate synopsis of the issue.

Unfortunately, many water departments today find themselves in a vicious cycle, deploying too much of their limited resources and budgets to repair water assets that have not had proper preventative maintenance. The basic challenge for these organizations is getting ahead of the curve and reducing their long-term spending through improved, systematic preventative maintenance.

For the many agencies grappling with these issues, the EPA issued an April 2008 publication titled “Asset Management: A Best Practices Guide.” Among the central benefits of asset management highlighted were:

  • Prolonging asset life and aiding in maintenance/replacement decisions through efficient operations and maintenance;
  • Meeting consumer demands with a focus on system sustainability; and
  • Meeting service expectation as well as regulatory requirements.

The EPA recommended that agencies consider a number of issues in developing an effective asset management plan. The first step is to begin an asset inventory to ascertain the current state of a system’s assets in order to determine the types, numbers and locations of those assets; their conditions and useful life; and their value. As assets are rehabilitated, repaired or replaced, inventories become more accurate.

It is also important to determine which assets are critical to sustained performance. Not all assets are created equal in terms of their contribution to water system performance. The failure of some assets, however, could have grave consequences for supply and safety, so categorizing them accordingly is paramount. This process can also help agencies determine how their assets can fail, the probability of failure and the costs to repair the assets versus proactively maintaining them.

These steps can lead to a more accurate assessment of minimum life-cycle costs, including a move from reactive to preventative maintenance and a greater knowledge of costs of rehabilitation versus replacement.

Technology’s Vital Role

Ultimately, the day-to-day tools and intelligence that agencies have at their fingertips will help them support the health and longevity of their water infrastructure. Technology can play a vital role in these processes, helping cities manage their water assets proactively, systematically and economically. Asset management software can help not only with assessment but also with ongoing maintenance processes.

Advanced solutions can help agencies prevent failure, plan downtime in advance, reduce maintenance costs and extend life cycles. Effective analysis of the right technology solutions must encompass several issues, including:

  • Ease of use for back-office, interdepartment and field teams;
  • Flexibility to support preventative maintenance based on myriad asset attributes; and
  • Support for reporting and tracking to maximize budgets and resources.

Ease of Use Empowers Workers

Ease of use must be a cornerstone of any asset management technology. Maintenance technicians might not possess deep computer skills, yet many technology solutions today are complex back-office applications that are accessible from the field but have not been designed specifically to be used in the field. This situation can reduce staff productivity and strain already-challenged budgets by increasing training costs.

Effective asset management solutions should strive to deliver a familiar and intuitive user experience but also offer integrated, geographical representations of all assets via agency- or Internet-based maps that can be accessed via PCs in the office or various mobile devices in the field. Touch-screen capability should be available to facilitate field use in a range of locations and weather conditions.

Ensuring that maintenance data is easily accessible to back-office and field teams or across departments can go a long way toward reducing repair costs and keeping water supplies clean and safe.

Staffing is a further issue mandating ease of use. Many agencies continue to experience staff reductions through budget cuts and the retirement of long-term workers. Many of these employees will take a great amount of knowledge with them. Software can help agency staff leverage cumulative knowledge and avoid past mistakes by making existing information easily accessible for future workers, thereby minimizing information gaps among newer employees.

Maintenance Scheduling

Asset management software solutions can also provide invaluable insight and data to prepare for the creation of a maintenance schedule. Given the tightening budgets and staffing of many agencies, effective technology solutions must empower staff with the ability to devise maintenance schedules based on the specific usage patterns or attributes of individual assets. This can ensure the proper level of maintenance to keep these assets functioning optimally, while maximizing staff time where and when it is needed most. Software can be set up for scheduled or usage-based maintenance.

Take the example of a city water pump. Advanced software would allow a water agency to arrange scheduled checks of the pump’s motor oil, operating valve, electrical system and other components at varying intervals, depending on the maintenance needs of each part. Taking usage and parts data into account, these assets could be input into the system, enabling the agency to paint a holistic picture of its needs. From there, work order templates could be created, allowing agency management to:

  • Assign staff automatically based on seasonal or ongoing workloads;
  • Have preventative maintenance schedules at their fingertips;
  • Ensure appropriate parts are available at set times; and
  • Plan budgeting and other resource requirements.

The city of Westminster, Colo., provides a cogent example. The city’s Utilities Operations Division, which is responsible for water, sewer, raw water and reclaim water, leverages Accela Asset Management for regular, system-wide checks to ensure all water devices are exercised and working properly. The software allows workers to keep track of which devices have been maintained and when and to plan where personnel should be deployed. By automating its maintenance regimen, Westminster can quickly generate work orders containing hundreds of assets. The Accela-based data is linked to a database from ESRI, enabling management to spatially map out the dispersal of maintenance teams.

Advanced solutions also must offer the ability for agencies to customize maintenance based on specific climate or usages variables. For example, a county in Georgia might want to avoid disruptive maintenance of water systems during peak usage in the heat of summer, whereas a city in California would likely want to cancel maintenance checks of water pumps during the state’s six-month summer dry season, when pumps are not in use. Condition-based maintenance is vital for agencies, as conditions at a specific location can directly impact an asset’s longevity (e.g., the type of soil in the area, the presence of major root systems and pipe pressure). Maintenance schedules can be arranged to reflect those circumstances.

Additionally, some assets that receive basic maintenance every month may require more comprehensive repair at longer intervals. Advanced solutions should allow agencies to input these more thorough maintenance checks into their system and cancel the monthly maintenance check for that particular date. Combining repair work and preventative maintenance into one work order helps ensure equipment availability, avoid duplication of staff and resources and secure appropriate maintenance engineers at the right time.

Reporting for Planning & Regulation

As municipalities and large organizations increasingly attempt to manage their infrastructure for the long term, they need to understand the complete life-cycle cost of keeping their infrastructure inventory in operation. Tracking data on all of the facets above can also assist with regulatory reporting and lead to more intelligent maintenance analysis.

Robust software permits agencies to easily build an asset inventory by leveraging any predefined inventories they may already have in place, without the need to build entirely new categorizations. Current and future workers can then find the same data how and when they need it.

Once an inventory is in place, effective software allows staff to monitor key performance indicators and real-time statistics for water assets, providing more rapid and knowledgeable decision making and the ability to track each request for service through completion. For example, an automated asset management solution can attach a water main service request to more or many work orders, allowing the full life cycle and cost of that request to be captured. Historic data on costs, parts, service staff and other criteria also should be accessible in order to support effective long-term maintenance analysis and planning.

With asset inventories and statistics in place, water agencies can better calculate the complete life-cycle costs of keeping their infrastructure operating—managing their assets for the long term, not just their current budget. Reporting tools can help agency heads analyze prevention of failure versus cost of failure. This also gives managers the tools to extrapolate the long-term costs of increasing preventative maintenance orders against a concurrent reduction in reactive repairs.

Taken together, this data can help water agency leaders back up their requests for budgets or staff, or articulate the likely trade-offs if funding is unavailable.

Next Steps

Comprehensively, the challenges facing water agencies today are enormous. There is no question that federal stimulus funding must be applied toward the critical water infrastructure necessary to the nation’s long-term health and prosperity. But there is much that can be done proactively at the regional level.

Water agencies are being challenged to do more with less and to meet mandates to the public with new approaches. Technology solutions that automate and streamline the management of our water- and wastewater-related assets can help reduce waste, improve quality and empower agency staffs with the tools for better preventative maintenance and long-term planning.

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About the Author

Mitch Bradley

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