The majority of cities may be singing the blues because their pipes won’t stack up against those of Barbra Streisand or Josh Groban. No, not those pipes. The less-than-tuneful pipes we’re referring to are the underground ones that carry our precious drinking water, stormwater and wastewater through a complicated network of underground tunnels. Often, the old maxim, “Out of sight, out of mind,” applies here.
It’s human nature to sometimes ignore our cities’ crucial infrastructure and concentrate on the items above ground where we can see and correct them immediately if something’s wrong, but that’s a critical mistake — do you know the size, age and type of material of your municipality’s pipes? Also, where exactly are they and are they still reachable? For example, when one city went to check on of its pipes, which had not been checked on in a few decades, it found a tree growing over the spot.
For keeping these complex underground tunnels in tiptop shape, cities need to get this data and inventory it for their records. Most importantly, cities need to keep their charts up to date, especially where repairs, replacements, treatments and changes are concerned. Familiarizing yourself with this vital information could save your city hefty repair costs and the wrath of residents when a chink in the infrastructure delays water use or worse, pollutes it — or provokes an entirely preventable flooding. It can be a daunting task, especially if the system size is substantial.
Philadelphia, Pa.’s, water department, as an example, encompasses 3,000 miles of sewers; 79,000 stormwater inlets; three drinking water treatment plants; three wastewater treatment plants; more than 25 pump stations; 175 combined sewer overflow regulating chambers; 164 CSO outfalls; more than 3,000 miles of water mains; 18 reservoirs; five water storage tanks; and more than 450 stormwater outfalls.
Medium-sized municipalities will experience much of the same challenges when keeping track of their own underground complexities — only on a smaller scale. Still, they will be making an endless stream of decisions. Such as when the time comes to replace old pipes: Do you use the same material or do you replace them with more advanced ones? A lot depends on the soil conditions, uses and previous failures and drawbacks. Pipes today come in many more choices than the old ones they’re replacing, including PVC, HDPE, concrete, vitrified clay pipe, steel and ductile iron. Each one has advantages and limitations. Pipe spans can last between 100-150 years.
Rami Naber, product manager for Trimble’s water division, underscored the importance of keeping up to date on the underground connections.
“Almost every aspect of utility operations and asset management depend on accurate data on utility network assets, including their location, age, material, condition and operating characteristics,” said Naber who was instrumental in developing Trimble Unity, a smart water management tool for water and wastewater utilities.
“Utilities and their engineering contractors and service providers use this data to conduct planning studies, integrate hydraulic models and perform engineering designs. The accuracy of the data has a direct impact on the quality of the analysis and designs that impact large capital improvement investments over many years,” Naber said.
“Utilities capture and maintain asset repository in their geographic information systems; they use highly accurate GPS equipment and specialized software to map their network assets, keeping their GIS up to date and accurate. Highly accurate GIS and network data is also used to support field maintenance operations and real-time asset performance monitoring and regulatory compliance.”
Naber added, “Having accurate GIS coupled with the analysis, design and real-time monitoring technologies, enables utilities to leverage advanced workflow and analytics solutions to measure and improve performance of their assets and improve field operations and customer service.”
Another of Trimble’s products is the R1, which is an external Global Navigation Satellite System used for mapping and hard-to-find assets.
“We have two receivers we offer for the water industry, the R1 and the R2, and the R2 is more accurate than the R1,” Naber said.
Chad Coon, general manager of the Oskaloosa, Iowa, Water and Wastewater Department, shared information on his city’s mapping project.
“The city has recently hired an engineering firm to map the sanitary and storm sewer systems,” said Coon, “and the water system is being mapped as time and resources allow with internal staff.”
Coon admitted there had been some trials along the way. “As far as challenges go, I’m thinking we had around 1,200 sanitary manholes, and the company actually identified 1,300-plus; (it’s a challenge) not having access to all of the manholes as they are buried under asphalt or out in the middle of a field, or not being maintained for years next to a creek and having a tree grow up around the lid.”
He added, “The city’s system has not had the maintenance it has needed for years, the theory being that they were going to keep rates low for the citizens and delay capital spending.”
It’s a prevalent theory across the country, Coon pointed out. “Let’s face it, we aren’t alone in this predicament; the entire country is facing the same issue as any number of articles and reports will tell you, but now, it’s time to pay the piper. Over the last couple years, there has been a concerted effort to ramp up the spending on our infrastructure: water, sewer and infrastructure. Our crews have been spending quite a bit of time televising the sanitary and storm infrastructure the last year-and-a-half, and there is a lot of pipe in the ground that is long past its useful lifespan, hence the need for increased infrastructure spending.”
Asked how long infrastructure would last before needing to be checked again, Coon said decades, but also that it depended on the particular infrastructure.
“Oskaloosa is in the process of setting up a program to jet and televise the sanitary sewer collection system once every four to five years,” said Coon, “and the same with the stormwater system. As far as water mains, we have our distribution system checked annually by a leak-detection contractor. They cannot find everything because we have a fair amount of C900 PVC in our system, but it helps provide a roadmap of sorts for staff in terms of areas that (it) may need to pay more attention to.
“The issue we, along with just about everyone else, will face is, understanding the fact that we cannot continue to ignore our infrastructure. Realizing that ‘out of sight, out of mind’ can no longer be what happens in our industry. Rates were kept low for years to ensure that water and sewer were affordable, heck, even downright cheap, but by keeping those rates artificially low, we have created a problem that needs to be tackled — one that all of us will continue to pay for, for years to come.”
A few other cities will begin mapping very soon or are currently doing so, including Davis, Okla., which now has its water infrastructure map on the web so its employees can find water meters and fire hydrants using an iPad, according to an October 2016 article in The Washington Times.
Funding is always a challenge, but the American Public Works Association website offers some hope with the news that the EPA recently launched a new $1 billion Water Infrastructure Projects Loan Program for financing large infrastructure projects. This aid is made possible through the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act program, which will provide “long-term, low-cost credit assistance in direct loans and loan guarantees to credit-worthy water infrastructure projects.” For information on the program, visit the APWA website, www.apwa.net.