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Asset Management for Water Distribution Systems

Asset Management for Water Distribution Systems

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Infrastructure Sustainability
The magnitude of managing aging buried infrastructure, while maintaining an acceptable level of service, is a growing challenge for all utilities. As a result, utilities are beginning to move towards a sustainability management approach with respect to their critical infrastructure and services.  Most experts agree that the main effort is focused on implementing asset management practices to achieve a degree of sustainability. While this is true, the question that arises is where to start an asset management program, especially with limited funds and high expectations of elected officials. 

Infrastructure sustainability is desired, but not just for basic compliance.  The goal is to drive towards improved performance.  To achieve excellence in sustainability management both utility performance and financial cost factors must be enhanced.   The approach to achieving sustainability is measured by performance indicators which may require long lead times and a great deal of planning and effort.  A fast track, practical asset management approach dealing with the top political concerns of customer disruption, collateral damage and costs can be managed through a phased risk mitigation approach of Control point management, Information management and Pipe management - C.I.P.

An Innovative Approach: Control - Information - Pipes (C.I.P.)
To develop sustainability, in the most economical and quick manner, our industry should invest where there is the highest leverage on investment.   In an aging infrastructure world, the highest leverage and fastest route to sustainability is through addressing the dynamic assets of the system (Control points and Information) and then, with this level of control, proactively address the static assets in the system (Pipes).   The dynamic assets are point assets; assets that can be improved, located,  assessed and documented in the short term, in order to provide control of static assets.  These control dynamic assets can be renewed (and thereby reduce risk) at a fraction of the cost of renewing static assets.   This focus on dynamic assets (control points and information) prior to static assets, leverages investment, delivers faster results and prepares for the huge ongoing costs of static asset renewal.  

Valves are the Control Points
Pipes were installed with valves to control the flow of water.  When water needs to be shut off or redirected, valves are used.  Control points (valves) in water systems were rarely used in the early years because of the good condition of the pipes, but with pipes reaching the end of their useful life, the usability of the control points (valves) has become one of the most critical concerns for utilities dealing with sustainability, main breaks, repair and replacement activities. 

The "Catch 22" is that valves worked when we did not need them and now, largely don't work when we do need them.  Due to past priorities, most of the control points (valves), across the country, have not been consistently tested and reconditioned and therefore fail to operate as designed, cannot be accessed or cannot be located.  The lack of control point management increases customer disruption, collateral damage and costs and distorts utility efforts to produce accurate flow, pressure testing, water audits, hydraulic modeling analysis and emergency preparedness planning. To control the water network, operators must know the status of the system--a system made up of static pipe assets and dynamic control assets.  Aging static assets (pipes) in the ground are uncontrollable in the short term; the control points (valves) in the ground ARE controllable in the short term.   Understanding, improving and documenting control points in a water system is controllable and demonstratively reduces the consequence of pipe failure (customer disruption, collateral damage and costs in the short term).   As a best practice, rehabilitating control points and information leverages and fast tracks pipe replacement and rehabilitation and other hydraulic activities and studies.    The priorities are C.I.P. - Control, Information and Pipes.

The main reasons for control points not being useable include the utility crew cannot locate the specific control point (valve), the valve box/vault is paved over (or buried), the valve box/vault is damaged or inaccessible with debris or the valve does not work as designed and fails. 

When the nearest valve needed for a shutdown is not useable, on average, an additional 1.7 valves are needed to be shut off, which impacts a much larger service area causing more customer disruption, collateral damage and cost.

Valves have been an underutilized but critical part of the water system. An example of this is that hydraulic models (if they include control points in the model) typically assume the 100% operability of all known valves. The true usability of control points (valves) are a core component for addressing trigger events like water main breaks and other disaster planning scenarios requiring shut offs and unidirectional flushing to avoid contamination.

Energy savings through control point management. Another value of control point assessment and management is the reduction of pumping costs and the reduction of the carbon footprint for water distribution. When water valves are not in the correct position it requires a great deal of additional energy and pumping costs in order to push the water to the correct destination at the correct pressure. Additionally, when valves are not in the correct position there is a direct impact on water age in sections of the system and disinfectant costs are higher than necessary. Understanding the usability and operability of control points such as large valves is often the most effective first step of a phased distribution network pipe assessment program.  Valves represent system control, allowing the network to operate efficiently, while minimizing damage in the event of a pipeline rupture.  

Information is required for Control

In addition to useable control points, useable and accurate information is critical in order to create sustainability. Both the physical control points and information are important assets for utilities. Control point information consists of three categories of data: location (being able to identify and find the specific valve when needed), operational (knowing the operability of the specific valve) and physical (knowing the bury structure and type of the specific valve).   All three categories of information are critical in order for a utility to be able to respond and reduce the consequence of pipe failure. 

For example, in the event of a main break, the information that is needed includes the location of the break, the size of the main and the specific location of the valves that must be closed to allow for repairs to be made. In addition to the location, the condition of the valve and valve structure is also a determining factor in the real cost of the main break. Water mains were installed with valves as control points to manage the efficiency of the water network.   Now, as pipes are failing due to age and other combining factors like weather, the importance of operational valves is enormous.

Pipes cannot be replaced without Control Points
Currently, the water industry's asset management focus seems to be on the pipes.  This is understandably a concern as the USEPA has stated that the largest cost component (60%) of aging water infrastructure cost is the replacement of the transmission and distribution lines. (USEPA, 2002) The sixty percent figure includes the replacement cost of the pipes only. The costs of running pipes to failure and addressing emergency unplanned pipe and street repairs and clean up, property and business loss insurance claims can be 2-3 times higher than a planned repair.   There is a distinct opportunity for the industry to focus and leverage sustainability investment. Managers are focused on investigating how to best prioritize rehabilitation and replacement programs in order to increase customer service, reduce collateral damage and control costs. Consultants have developed and are running many kinds of sophisticated desktop models based on historical data and "external data" such as soil corrosivity. A major goal is to use data to formulate a prioritized  and supportable plan to deal with aging physical assets, however, one should not lose sight that the target is not just a study or scope, but to actually get out and fix the problem, reduce customer disruptions, collateral damage and control costs. At some point, after the analysis of pipe materials, asset classes, prioritizing risk models and statistical scenario runs--pipe segments need to be isolated to actually do the work. Utilities, now, have an opportunity to do cost effective and targeted field validation or inspections after the desktop data analysis are completed in order to confirm the need for specific pipe renewal.

Rising Consequence of Pipe Failure
Utilities are being faced with an increase in both the frequency and consequence (impact) of water main breaks. Typically the utility gets a call from a residence explaining that there is water gushing from the street.  The caller's address and information is recorded and a utility crew is dispatched. The crew searches for possible valve locations to shut off the water in order to make repairs, meanwhile treated water may be damaging roadways and flooding businesses and private property. Some utilities have experienced a 62% increase in main breaks and a 23% increase in the direct costs of labor and equipment (Lewis, 2010).  From surveys about the cost of main breaks, about 70% of the respondents record labor, materials, and equipment costs.  Only thirty percent of respondents record the additional/significant cost of property damage or the effect of the break on the customers (Wood and Lence, 2006).  As pipelines continue to age and provide service beyond their design life, the phased approach of control point usability, coupled with accurate information, is critical in order to quickly meet many of the key performance measures for Effective Utility Management (EUM, 2010)

Even higher costs estimates would exist if all property damage and other society costs like traffic delays were included. The failure impact also creates a huge public relations issue which is a significant concern for elected officials.

Asset Management
Asset Management strategies may be able to capture savings of 20-30% of life cycle costs over time (USEPA, 2007).  However, many of the cultural and procedural changes required for full implementation of advance asset management will not occur for four to seven years for a large organization. Given the current state of the economy, utility managers cannot wait for good but slow results.  Also, as a nation, the water infrastructure investment gap has been estimated at $1 trillion over 20 years when financing costs are included. Now, with the decline of utility revenue the infrastructure gap will only continue to increase (Baird, 2010). 

Recent asset management efforts have been centralized on pipe replacement models and criticality analysis.  The criticality formula is the probability of failure times the consequence or impact of failure (Criticality = Probability X Consequence).  The emphasis has been on determining the probability of failure in order to predict the timing of replacement activities and reprioritize capital project plans. This important effort helps better allocate capital dollars along a timeline.  A control point management phased approach first focuses on reducing costs by minimizing the consequence of failure, economically assesses the condition of the related pipes and integrates the control point information required to create a more practical and cost effective prioritized capital plan.

Consequence of Failure is Controllable. The water industry is now searching for opportunities to drive down the consequence of failure costs through focused control point asset management.

A very important part of the asset management analysis for pipes deals with the probability of failure and the consequence of failure. The probability of failure side of the equation relies on the historical failure data of pipes based on materials and age and other factors.  Historic data, coupled with analysis of probability of failure creates the calculated estimate of what is likely to happen and becomes the basis of the future pipe failure curves one could expect for the utility. Most assume that the probability of failure concept is largely uncontrollable, but the lack of control point operability has influenced the very nature of the types and reasons of the failure data.

Invest in and leverage control. Control point operability assumes that valves give us the ability to turn water on and off and to a lesser degree hydrants also help maintain a certain degree of control within the system. Some models actually show where you can add valves in order to better control your water system.

Many utilities are primarily focused on the uncontrollable part of their system (the static assets, the pipes), while there is a huge benefit to actively controlling the controllable assets (the dynamic assets, the control points and information). In most cases, when a  mainbreak/sinkhole occurs the age or condition of the pipe becomes the reason of the failure.   While the pipe may have caused the failure, the control points determine, to a large extent, the consequences of that failure.    The dynamic assets (control points and information) control the system and the impact of the consequence of the increasing failure of static assets (pipes).

Utilities taking control. Currently the City of Atlanta is aggressively addressing the control of their water system within a three-year timeframe by locating inspecting and recording real information on every valve and fire hydrant in their system. They understand that while water main breaks will inevitably continue their fast-track approach of gaining knowledge and control of their system will reduce the overall cost of the consequence of failure.

The City of Baltimore also has been very progressive in understanding the control points throughout their system in order to bring about an overall reduction in both current operating expenses and future capital programs. When a pipe breaks a utility needs to have the necessary control to manage the break, to fix the break and to reduce the impact of the break. Utilities need control to run the water system effectively.

The City of Houston has many of their treatment plants on the east side of the city and pump their water towards the western urbanized areas. Through a proactive large valve assessment and improvement project, Houston gained water efficiencies by correcting and adjusting control points (valves) to more efficiently push water from east to west, saving energy and chemical costs.

Control Point Performance Improvements and Benefits
The recent 2011 Utility Management Conference hosted by AWWA and WEF in Denver focused on the 10 Attributes of Effective Utility Management (EUM).  Embedded into the benchmarking element, performance indicators can be calculated and used to demonstrate improved effectiveness and act as a benchmarking tool against other utilities (EUM, 2010).  Gaining control of the valves in the network produces immediate improvements and benefits.

The benefits of a fast track sustainable control point management program can include:

  1. Regulatory and non-regulatory compliance performance will be improved
  2. Customer complaints will be reduced
  3. Call responsiveness will improve
  4. Employees will be more motivated and job satisfaction will improve
  5. Resources will be used more efficiently and reduce total O&M costs
  6. Pumping and energy costs will be reduced
  7. Distribution system water loss will be reduced
  8. Financial metrics and ratios will improve
  9. Asset Management practices will be improved and expedited with more accurate inventory and condition data
  10. Renewal and replacement estimates will be more accurate and justified
  11. System integrity will be improved as leakage and breakage events decrease
  12. Expensive unplanned maintenance will be reduced and planned maintenance activities will be better aligned
  13. Insurance claims both in the cost and the number of claims will decrease
  14. Emergency Response Plans will be more reliable and functional
  15. Service will improve and costs will be minimized to promote greater service affordability
  16. Water demand accuracy will improve future water planning (Total water loss reductions and improved customer conservation and awareness will improve more accurate water demand data for future supply planning)
  17. Stakeholder satisfaction will improve (as the community sees proactive action in their area)


In 2011, the Partnership for Safe Water (PSW) has expanded the performance improvement programs from treatment plants to a new Distribution System Optimization Program.  With 230 utility members serving more than 85 million people in the United States the PSW approach is to improve performance by optimizing system operations rather than relying solely on significant capital improvements.  The primary element of the program is to conduct a comprehensive assessment of their system operation in order to empower system operators with knowledge to improve water quality and system reliability (PSW, 2011).

A control point management program is a critical first step and will immediately achieve successful results in many PSW performance measures areas such as energy management, flushing, maintaining valves, main break management, pipeline installations, pressure management, water age and modeling and water loss control.

As the water industry continues to develop and implement improvement programs like control point management, information management and pipe management, stakeholders will continue to see improved water quality, enhanced system reliability and the transformation of utilities to a culture of sustainability.

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Wachs Water Services is the leading provider of water distribution system asset management solutions that significantly improve efficiency and network control. Our specialized approach combines condition assessment and rehabilitation services for valves, hydrants and water mains with the capture and integration of critical water asset GIS information. We provide the expertise, equipment and personnel to locate, assess, operate and document virtually any water asset.