Controlling Infrastructure Repair Costs Through Evaluation

April 1, 2008
Several articles and recent events have highlighted the dramatic failures the piping industry is experiencing.

by Ron Collins

Several articles and recent events have highlighted the dramatic failures the piping industry is experiencing. With much of our infrastructure well past its 50 year life expectancy, newspapers and television do not have to look very far to have their six o’clock story or front page attention getter. Recently, there have been so many that those in our firm have been debating over which scenario captures the most attention: the automobile face down in a water hole in the street, the flow of raw sewage forming its own river bed down a creek, or the geyser towering 100 feet over a contractor’s backhoe in the middle of the city.

What doesn’t make the papers or the six o’clock news is the havoc these situations create in the city or utility company’s budget and the destruction of their public relations image. Quite often the problem may not be a total blowout of the infrastructure, but one that is eminent unless something is done immediately. For older and high growth cities that installed their infrastructure systems right after WWII, the large transmission, collection and distribution mains in both water and wastewater systems have become a major concern. Of equal concern is the budget it will take to deal with unknown failures. In the case of some cities, there is a lack of funds because a major catastrophic failure last year ate two to five years of the future budget. This situation of being caught between a rock and a hard place is more the rule than the exception in today’s real world.

Our firm, along with others that provide emergency services to the piping industry, constantly field telephone calls from superintendents, field foremen, engineers and contractors that have URGENCY draped all over them. For many it is their first experience. For others, it is one they have experienced several times, but because it is a larger, more critical line it has become one that is a six o’clock news profile. Most of these situations are handled with more money, more time and less sleep than everyone first expected. Some events truly turn into a public relations nightmare because of the interruption of public services, disruption of traffic or the perception of the public, fanned by the media, that the utility company either doesn’t care, is incompetent, or both.

After all is said and done, in many of the major emergency repairs, we have seen an awakening of the agency that has experienced and calculated the cost in time, service interruption, public relations and money. What they have realized is that with a little forethought and planning, they could have been better prepared to deal with the failure that occurred, and no doubt will occur again somewhere in their system. You will recognize this as risk analysis and management, a hot topic in today’s world.

To illustrate this point, a recent article in an Arizona newspaper covered a broken water main near a university in Tempe. Viewing the event from the aspect of the shutdown and excavation inconvenience at a major intersection for over a month, it prompted one web blogger to comment on “hooooowwwwww is it possible that the city did not have back up parts for a city water main ?” Obviously, the city didn’t have the opportunity to explain the how and why of handling the repair. This “public image” is the downside of reaction rather than pro-action to media coverage.

An example of pro-action planning took place two years ago when a New England water agency had the potential of an extreme failure on their major supply line, a 100 year old, 60” cast iron main. Leaking at the time, they expedited a repair fitting to encapsulate the joint area, previously repaired in 1970. Realizing the situation had the potential to go from bad to disastrous because of the necessary lead time to obtain a specially engineered fitting, the agency determined that it would be beneficial to all concerned to secure a means of immediate repair for the aging line. In addition, they determined the variables in the line and what was required to cover all of them. The agency acquired two repair fittings to keep in stock for approximately the same price as one emergency fitting. The two contingency fittings will save more than just the “emergency status” cost of the fittings. In the long run they save major “hot shot” transportation fees, engineering and crew overtime costs, and they eliminate service downtime and the costs of poor public relations.

Today, we recommend that agencies start looking at an organized program of evaluating the condition of their large diameter pipe infrastructure in order to assess the remaining life expectancy of each critical line. By doing this they will be in a more knowledgeable position to determine priorities for dealing with situations, establish contingency plans and options for emergency repairs, and establish a budget of time and money that will best fit the limited resources of the agency.

About the author:

Ron Collins is a member of the WWEMA Board of Directors and is President / CEO of JCM Industries, Inc., a Nash, Texas-based manufacturer of pipe fittings and fabrication.

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