Utility companies must undertake timely maintenance of pipelines, valves & all hydraulic appurtenances.
Utility pipelines contain complex networks that span millions of miles across the country. They comprise water collection, distribution and waste treatment systems. Utilities rely on several valves to regulate flow rates and control the direction of potable water, waste, sewage, fire protection systems and stormwater.
Two Common Categories of Valves
These valves provide the means for controlling the pressure across the pipeline, preventing reverse flow and shutting down flow in pipe sections for maintenance. Therefore, valves in public utility infrastructure fall into two categories:
- Isolation valves (shutoff): Butterfly, Gate, Globe and Ball valves.
- Control valves: Pressure reducing, Throttling, Pressure relief, Directional, Float And Check valves.
The design and operation of utilities must adhere to several statutory regulations. That explains why utility companies must undertake timely maintenance of pipelines, valves and all hydraulic appurtenances. Valve failures are consequential and can cause the contamination of distribution systems due to backflow of effluent, pipe damages and disruption of supply. Maintenance is critical for enhancing the reliability and durability of valves, safety and quality of utilities.
Typical Valve Maintenance Activities
Valve maintenance does not necessarily have to be a costly endeavor. Instead, it involves simple preventive measures that can add value to the company. Typical maintenance activities include:
- Cleaning valve vaults;
- Exercising valves;
- Lubricating valve levers;
- Inspecting valves for leakages and surface defects;
- Inspecting and repairing actuators; and
- Replacement, repair and reconditioning of old valves
In the age of technology, utility companies need to collect vast amounts of information regarding valve operations. They need to understand how flow conditions affect valve performances, the impact of automating utility valves and valve maintenance-related metrics. The data-driven proactive approach enhances the accuracy of maintenance and enables the company to control operational costs.
What practices can utility companies adopt to streamline the maintenance of valves spanning wide geographic locations? Are there opportunities for them to improve existing maintenance programs?
RELATED: What is a Check Valve?
1. Establish and Adhere To A Valve Maintenance Program
Utility companies employ diverse maintenance strategies depending on the coverage of their networks. Some companies have in-house maintenance teams, while others outsource maintenance to third parties. For any approach, the company should establish a specific maintenance program. Will the company wait for valve failures to happen before they respond? Or will they invest in a proactive strategy?
The company needs to list down the locations and types of every valve in the network. They then break down the maintenance needs for each valve, the spare parts and tool requirements. It enables the company to identify a starting point for maintaining dispersed valves. Older valves will be good candidates for preventive maintenance, while companies can place newer, actuated valves in a proactive maintenance program.
A valve maintenance program should incorporate sets of standard operating procedures. They include specifications for creating and updating valve maintenance schedules, policies for resource planning and utilization, recording and tracking the progress of maintenance work, and safety measures for maintenance.
The company must evaluate the effectiveness of valve maintenance programs. The program has to accommodate utility networks adjustments without affecting routine workflows. For every maintenance strategy, the company has to analyze the following questions
Valve Maintenance Strategic Questions Checklist
- Cost-savings — does the program reduce maintenance costs?
- Turn-around time — how quickly can maintenance teams repair, replace or inspect valves? What are the mean times to repair (MTTR) different valves?
- Frequency of failures — what is the mean time between failures (MTBF)?
- Do maintenance teams adhere to safety protocols?
- How accurate are the maintenance records?
2. Invest In Appropriate Maintenance Technologies
Dealing with multiple assets at one go can be a challenge for maintenance personnel. They have to harmonize maintenance records, perform actual maintenance work and plan extensively. Maintenance teams attend to the valves in different locations at different times. All the teams need to maintain timely communication for better customer service. With technology, utility companies can manage workflows better and improve the quality of work.
Utility companies can invest in a suitable computerized maintenance management system (CMMS). Such platforms allow them to digitize valve records. They keep information on the location, size, type and maintenance procedures for every valve in the network. They store comprehensive maintenance records for all valves.
CMMS solutions are compatible with mobile devices and can work with other technologies, such as GIS mapping, enabling technicians to update work records remotely. The programs are vital for creating long-term maintenance schedules and can generate timely reminders. That way, the company ensures the technicians perform the correct maintenance at the right time.
Advancements in technology are revolutionizing how utility companies respond to valve maintenance. Utility companies can leverage SCADA and IoT technologies to monitor the quality and performances of valves in real-time.
These technologies collect massive amounts of data that can reshape the direction of maintenance. Technicians perform condition-monitoring of valves and identify early signs of failures. They then rectify these defects before they cause damage that can impede the operation of utilities. Companies can invest in detectors to pinpoint locations of old valves in the system.
3. Establish Criteria For Prioritizing Valves
Which valves in the utility network deserve the utmost attention? The valves vary in size and complexity as you move from the water plant zones to customer premises. All these valves contribute to the reliability of distribution and collection systems. However, there are few valves whose failure or shut down will cripple operations in the entire system. The locations of these valves play a role in determining maintenance schedules. Maintaining a valve at a busy street junction during rush hour will disrupt traffic flow.
When establishing or improving a valve maintenance program, the utility company needs to consider:
- The proximity of the valves to customer premises;
- Flow rates across the valve;
- Proximity to other public service infrastructure; and
- The age of the valve.
The utility company must ensure that valves at customer premises are in perfect working conditions. Valves near customer premises take top priority. The company must also pay close attention to valves with high flow rates past them. Leakages from such valves could cause a spike in non-revenue water (NRW) and can spell dire financial losses for companies.
The proximity of valves to other public infrastructure affects how companies undertake maintenance. There are permits that the company must acquire before working on busy streets, near power distribution lines or restricted urban zones. The company needs to put measures in place for addressing the emergency breakdown of valves in such zones. Alternatively, they can automate these valves and equip them with condition-monitoring sensors to combat valve failures before they happen, and plan adequately.
Aging valves are prone to failures. It can be due to a rusting stem, corroded internal components, or a weak valve body. Companies need to prioritize the maintenance of old valves over new ones. They need to ensure the technicians inspect, lubricate and exercise them frequently. Spare or replacement parts for old valves should be readily available.
Empower Your Maintenance Teams
Maintenance teams work around the clock to keep valves running. They rectify broken pipelines and defective valves in the middle of the night so that the customers can enjoy uninterrupted supplies. They also size wastewater systems to ensure the streets are clean and safe. Although they have initial professional training, these individuals require continuous development in their lines of work.
To streamline the maintenance of valves, utility companies must equip these teams with the right work tools and advanced technologies. They require advanced digital skills to enable them to exploit digital maintenance tools. The technicians should understand how to read and interpret sensor information, how to use detectors and ways to use computerized maintenance programs.
Companies establishing new maintenance crews can enlist the services of specialists from valve vendors and engineering consultancies. They provide initial and continuous staff training, leveraging real-life experiences and lessons from performing outsourced valve maintenance. The training should not only focus on the technical delivery of services. Instead, the company can provide skills for maintaining a healthy work-life balance amid the challenging nature of their work. Utility companies can also collect feedback from the maintenance teams and use it to streamline workflows and improve maintenance programs.
Utility companies must invest in proper valve maintenance programs. They must look beyond repairs and reactive valve maintenance. To remain competitive and compliant, they need to adopt proactive measures and leverage advanced technology. Companies must also up-skill their maintenance teams. Aside from guaranteeing public safety, valve maintenance ensures the durability and reliability of utility networks.