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Utility Efficiency for Water Distribution Systems

Utility Efficiency for Water Distribution Systems

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Operational Intelligence
Operational intelligence is the water utility's capacity to grasp meaning and relationships to make operational decisions.  Operational Intelligence is a component of the sustainability paradigm; it mitigates risk very specifically by reducing the consequences of failure.  It reduces the consequences of failure by helping utilities put the right people, the right tools and the right training in the right place at the right time.  In an environment where budgets are tight, the battle to reduce the consequences of failure is in reality a battle to reduce the time it takes to respond.  This means reducing the amount of time that water flows from the breach, it means reducing the amount of time that meters do not register or under register during the low flow conditions that accompany many emergencies - it means reducing the cost of the event on several fronts simultaneously.

The structure of this capacity, Operational Intelligence, is built on the aggregate of how usable business systems are.  In particular, the business systems that control data about:

  • Where assets are located
  • How assets are connected
  • Condition of assets
  • How assets function hydraulically
  • The service request itself
  • How response teams are equipped
  • How response teams are trained
  • Where response teams are located
  • The current work being performed

To that end, Operational Intelligence as a function is dependent on what data is available for making decisions in terms of completeness, accuracy, how current it is, how well it is integrated with systems that share data and how well that data is provisioned to the people who need it.  In the absence of this framework, business systems are hollow unusable artillery shells in the battle to mitigate consequences.

Wachs Water Services Solution - is to first ascertain the utility's current position with regard to data related to physical assets, people and events.  Identify data which must be related, integrate the systems and develop a central provisioning mechanism.  As a stop gap measure, integrate the people who currently use business systems so that they are better coordinated during emergencies to grow a cohesive response mechanism related to the control of physical assets and the consequences of failure.



Utility Staffing and Knowledge Retention
Staffing Challenges - The utility workforce is aging.  Studies by the Water Research Foundation and the Water Environment Research Federation show that the average utility worker is 44.7 years old.  Many utility workers can take full retirement after 30 years of service, some as early as age 50.  These same studies say that 30- 50% of all utility workers are eligible to retire in the next 5 - 10 years.  While this workforce crisis has been somewhat delayed due to the financial meltdown, as soon as the economy rebounds, there will be a huge exodus by those workers already ready to retire as well as the ones newly eligible.  And, due to downsizing, rightsizing and general limitations on funding, most utilities have not hired many people in the last two decades, thus creating a serious management and knowledge gap that will occur upon the departure of these "baby boomers."   It is highly likely that exiting workers are taking a wealth of institutional knowledge with them into retirement.  So, utilities are facing a shortage of employees both in numbers and utility knowledge and experience.  The impact of this situation will be compounded by the lack of experience of the new employees and water distribution systems that continue to age.

Wachs Water Services Solution - is to help with knowledge retention, as one of the keys to a sustainable utility.  Employees can learn to use the knowledge accumulated by the retiring work force but only if it is collected and documented into an accessible, usable format.  Before utility workers depart, every effort must be made to record the knowledge they have acquired through years of experience.  One way is to develop and populate a dynamic water GIS system that includes detailed information about each utility asset and its operation.  With this information available and easily accessible, even an inexperienced worker can figure out what to do to keep the system operable.  Among its service offerings , Wachs Water Services has a robust staff of IT  professionals ready and willing to develop or improve utility information systems.  We have trained field staff to collect attribute information as they assess and rehabilitate distribution system assets.  This information is downloaded into a utility's water GIS for use by others in the future.  One component of operability is knowledge.  Operations staff need to know the condition of each asset.  This information is also used by management to plan future improvements and improve efficiencies.  The infrastructure is aging and with limited funding, expenditures must be carefully planned.



Reactive system management
In the business world, being reactive to a customer need equates to a positive public perception and community acceptance.  In the water industry, just being reactive in the case of a water main break or other emergency water shut down is not considered good enough. As a result of only a reactive work environment, the utility can progressively lose community trust making increasing rates in the future more difficult. 

A reactive mode increases the costs associated with water main breaks and system failures when the duration of the event is longer than necessary and the amount of water loss and damage is increased.  A proactive response by utilities includes gaining control of the critical points of their system to reduce costs and the time it takes on repairing unplanned water main breaks.

Wachs Water Services Solution - is to promote excellence in water distribution system management and business performance by providing services which put the control back into the hands of the utility.  Wachs Water Services expert crews focus on the control points (water main valves) that may not be usable because the utility crew cannot locate the specific control 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.  Wachs Water Services crews are also able to rehabilitate water valves at a much lower cost than replacing the water main valves.  These services increase operational control while decreasing capital replacement and maintenance costs.



Water main breaks
The aging water infrastructure issue continues to surface in the media as water main breaks and sink holes are reported across the nation.  One area of great concern has been the increase of water main breaks in urbanized locations.  This concern deals with the growing challenge of quickly isolating and controlling the break in densely populated areas.  There are many reasons for water main failure that may be out of a utility's control; however the operability and functionality of the valves and hydrants are controllable by the utility and can minimize the amount of disruption and damage an emergency water main break creates.

In the United States, up to 40% of water distribution system's valves may not be functioning properly. As a result of these faulty control points, emergency water main break service disruptions are impacting more customers, creating more property damage, driving up total costs of repairs, and increasing contamination risks requiring the issuance of boiling orders.

Wachs Water Services Solution - is to help utilities minimize the damage caused by emergency main breaks. Wachs Water Services focuses on control point information that consists of three categories of data: location (being able to identify and find the specific water main valve when needed), operational (knowing the operability of the specific water main 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 impact and cost of water main breaks.  When a water main breaks, the information that is needed includes the location of the break, the size of the main, the specific location of the associated water main 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. Wachs Water Services crews are trained to quickly collect critical information and directly address any operational control point issue and provide the data and corrective actions back to the utility as part of a practical asset management program.



Aging Asset Management
Aging Asset Management has been described in many ways, but most focus on a method of infrastructure asset management which sets a level of service required by each asset, assigns a minimum condition and manages the asset to minimize the total cost of ownership.  The most basic steps of infrastructure asset management include: inventory the assets, assess the condition, estimate the remaining useful life, manage the wear-out process, and continually improve the plan.

Most asset management programs can take years to develop in order to handle all of the diverse assets of a utility.  Meanwhile, the underground infrastructure continues to fail, creating emergency water main breaks. With up to 40% of the valves not fully functional, on average for a utility nearly 1.7x valves need to be engaged to isolate and control the main break creating a larger damage impact area driving up costs and the number of adversely impacted community businesses and residences.

Wachs Water Services Solution - is to offer immediate and tangible results for a practical approach to asset management. Wachs understands that 60% of the infrastructure costs are in the water distribution and transmission systems and that while a pipe capital project prioritization list is being created the best strategy is to minimize the cost consequence of failure through gaining operational control of the water main valve's and hydrants first. Wachs Water Services also offers an advanced pipe condition assessment program that can be completed in parallel to a control point assessment and rehab program to reduce overall costs.



Asset Management
Water asset management can be described in many ways, but most focus on a method of infrastructure asset management which sets a level of service required by each water asset, assigns a minimum condition and manages the asset to minimize the total cost of ownership.  The most basic steps of water infrastructure asset management include: inventory the assets, assess the condition, estimate the remaining useful life, manage the wear-out process, and continually improve the plan.

Most asset management programs can take years to develop in order to handle all of the diverse assets of a utility.  Meanwhile, the underground water infrastructure continues to fail, creating emergency water main breaks. With up to 40% of the valves not fully functional on average for a utility nearly 1.7x valves need to be engaged to isolate and control the main break creating a larger damage impact area driving up costs and the number of adversely impacted community businesses and residences.

Wachs Water Services Solution - is to offer immediate and tangible results for a practical approach to water asset management. Wachs understands that 60% of the infrastructure costs are in the distribution and transmission systems and that while a water main capital project prioritization list is being created the best strategy is to minimize the cost consequence of failure through gaining operational control of the water main valves and hydrants first. Wachs Water Services also offers an advanced water main condition assessment program that can be completed in parallel to a control point assessment and rehabilitation program to reduce overall costs.



Condition Assessment
Condition assessment is an important activity of an asset management program.  Condition assessment entails gathering the data through data analysis, monitoring, inspections, and observations of assets to determine their performance and estimated remaining life.  Condition assessment is a critical component in the replacement decision making process, without it, assets may be replaced while wasting remaining useful life.

Water utilities have a great deal of assets which are underground and historically have been very difficult to perform condition assessment activities.  These types of condition assessment activities were both uncertain and costly and many times were deferred or postponed. As a result many underground assets have been long forgotten until emergency repairs were needed.  The epidemic of water main breaks and emergency repairs has become an industry wake up call to address the aging water infrastructure issues.

Wachs Water Services Solution - is to ensure the condition of the asset is the primary driver for replacement decision making to produce the best combination of criticality analysis and asset investment. Wachs Water Services offers a complete package of water asset management services which focus on the restitution of the operability of water networks through locating, assessing the condition, providing maintenance, rehabilitating, or replacing critical valves and hydrants which control the directional flow of water and are necessary in reducing overall impact areas with high consequences of failures during emergency water main breaks and repairs.  Wachs Water Services also has expanded its underground water main inspection to include state-of-the-art pipe inspections from the same valve and hydrant locations.  Wachs Water Services' condition assessment program is able to pay for itself by saving utility money by prioritizing replacement decisions, avoiding catastrophic failure, reducing the costs associated with emergency repair, and ultimately reducing lost revenues due to water loss and potential rate increases and the issuance of excessive debt.



Business Risk Exposure Analysis
Business risk exposure is an important consideration when making repair and replacement decisions. The process of assessing risk or risk management involves determining the outcomes of water asset performance and failure and the probability of  a trigger event and the consequence or impact it may have on the system.  This criticality analysis helps prioritize operations and maintenance efforts as well as capital investments.

Many assets in the water system such as water main valves require an ongoing maintenance program to provide a level of assurance of their operability.  Most utilities have traditionally not exercised every water main valve sufficiently and now require that an inspection be performed to determine the individual asset condition.  Because of the nature of valves, one general condition should not be applied to all.  There are too many variables to consider with individual locations and inoperability issues.  A business risk exposure analysis for these system control points will require initial inspections in order to best prioritize the amount of work that may occur.  The geographic location of the valve will also be an important factor.

Wachs Water Services Solution - is to provide a quick vulnerability assessment of critical water main valves by location and prioritize a list of exercising, rehabilitation and replacement needs.  Wachs Water Services takes into consideration the probability of failure with the consequence of failure in a criticality analysis.  Wachs Water Services expert crews also can address other water distribution system issues beyond valves and include hydrants and water mains.  The Wachs Water Services offering is both scalable and flexible to meet the known problems of the system and uncover and address new issues identified during the inspections.



Capital Planning
The process of capital planning and budgeting can be more complicated than the operating budget. Capital planning and budgeting is also more time consuming because it leads to a capital financing plan or funding strategy. Asset management and condition assessment activities will help improve the accuracy of the capital budget. Utilities are different than other enterprise funds and should not be viewed the same or treated as the general fund because water and wastewater utilities are the most capital intensive sectors in the economy and require a more significant capital planning effort. Utilities also require long-term thinking because of the age of many of the underground pipes and infrastructure.

Most operating budgets are fairly stable over time, yet the operations budget always seems to be the main focus of elected officials and local management.  Much of this attention on the operational budget is due to the fact that the basic operation and maintenance costs drive the normal baseline rates and of the financial metrics.  When utilities, however fail to maintain their asset appropriately through the operational budget, the result drives a higher capital replacement budget to fund the repairs and replacements of ill-maintained and failed assets.

Wachs Water Services Solution - is to target the pivotal need where operations and maintenance budgets meet and drive capital replacement budgets.  Wachs Water Services can conduct and develop a preventative maintenance program by exercising the water main valves and bringing the operability of valves and hydrants to mission critical functionality, thereby reducing the need of simply replacing assets through the capital budget at a higher cost.  Many water main valves can be saved by rehabilitation at a cost savings much greater than replacement.  The Wachs Water Services can effectively and immediately correct the gap in deferred maintenance programs while saving capital dollars and helping to regain water distribution system control.



Preventative Maintenance Programs
Preventative maintenances programs should not be considered an optional program for key assets like water main valves and hydrants that are used as control points to direct the flow of water in distribution networks.

Many utilities have neglected and postponed maintenance programs through reducing budgets and laying-off or freezing maintenance work positions.  While from the budget standpoint, the action seems justified and may be considered as just short term, in most cases the cost to the operation will actually increase beyond the budget cut.   This will occur as unplanned maintenance costs increase well above planned maintenance costs.  The frequency and type of unplanned maintenance comes at a higher cost through emergency mobilization of staff, equipment and interrupted services.

Wachs Water Services Solution - is to strategically tackle the issue of reducing the high cost of unplanned maintenance.  Wachs Water Services delivers immediate results through restoring the operability of water main valves and hydrants as well as testing and placing the water main valves in the correct position.  Wachs Water Services can also provide advanced technologies to quickly and easily inspect water mains to both determine the condition and prioritize potential rehabilitation and replacement needs. By gaining control of these critical assets, the utility is more readily able to reduce the unplanned maintenance occurrences and through the development of a more effective and strategic maintenance program every planned maintenance activity can reduce future operational budgets.

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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.