A proactive approach to maintenance and improvements helps a small Colorado utility stay ahead of problems.
An ambitious staff of three has made once-frequent SSOs a thing of the past in Fruita, Colorado. The entire 74-mile collections system in the western Colorado city is maintained with a proactive approach and by making decisions with an eye on the future.
The city’s Public Works Department implemented a systematic cleaning and inspection cycle in 2002, while also dealing with all the usual Public Works responsibilities, such as road and bridge work and building maintenance. That department is 13 people strong, only three of whom spend the majority of their time maintaining the collections system.
“We run into challenges, but I think we do a great job considering the amount of staff we have,” says John Carrillo, senior maintenance partner who heads up the collections system crew.
The cleaning and inspection program has gradually evolved and is paying dividends for Fruita. Beyond simply eliminating SSOs, the program has helped the city better manage funds and prepare for the future, says Carrillo.
“We’re able to actually look at the conditions of our system, compare it against road overlay work and try to schedule work so we can do all the repairs at the same time,” he says.
“We’re not 100 percent there yet, but we’re moving in that direction of being more responsible to the citizens with the decisions we’re making about road and utility maintenance.”
Launching the program
Fruita has a population of 12,881, with a projected growth rate of 2.5 percent per year over the next 30 years. The collections system serving that population is a combination of new and old. About 86 percent of the 74 miles of sewer line is PVC. Older clay tile makes up about 9 percent of the system. Concrete accounts for 3 percent, 1 percent is sliplined, and another 1 percent is Orangeburg. Fruita maintains that system with an annual operating budget of $360,000, about a quarter of the entire Public Works operations budget.
Carrillo has worked for the city for eight years, and for the past five he has focused on the collections system, overseeing maintenance for eight lift stations as well as the administrative side of collections. Two other Public Works employees assist him. Gary Link handles the cleaning work with a Vactor 2100. A smaller unit, a Vactor 2103, is used as a backup and also for working in more restrictive areas of the city. Bill Wulff inspects pipes using a RapidView IBAK system with two tractors and three cameras capable of handling pipe from 4 to 48 inches in diameter.
“It’s not full-time work,” says Carrillo. “With how small our staff is, we have to be ready to help out anywhere.”
But for a majority of the year, cleaning and inspecting the collections system is the primary task. The program started in 2002, prompted by an excessive number of sanitary sewer overflows.
“Prior to 2002, the city only had one outdated jetter truck without a vacuum system,” Carrillo says. “There was about an SSO a month on average at that time, and there was no way of removing anything from the collections system. They were just pushing debris down the line from manhole to manhole.”
So the city purchased a Vactor 2100 and immediately went full bore into a cleaning program.
“At that point, between two and four full loads of sludge and grit were coming out of the collections system daily,” Carrillo says. “As this progressed, we were able to start identifying problem areas of the city. For example, if we started to pull out mud in a line it usually pointed to a broken or collapsed section of pipe.”
Problem areas were cataloged in hand-written reports. A year into the cleaning program, Fruita added the inspection component with the purchase of a camera van retrofitted with CUES equipment. At the same time, the city was making a move to a Microsoft Access database system to log every maintenance event or callout that occurred in the city, and the CCTV inspections became a part of that initiative. As problem areas were identified, funding was allocated to do spot repairs or minor capital projects. But all the inspections were on DVDs stored in filing cabinets.
“They were fairly well organized, but imagine 1,000 DVDs and you need to find a specific line. You’re pulling out every DVD trying to find it,” Carrillo says.
When the camera van was scheduled for replacement in 2012, Fruita made a technological upgrade. The city tested out equipment from several vendors and settled on a RapidView IBAK system using PipeLogix software.
“We were able to get away from DVDs and actually export the entire video inspection along with graphic reporting to a separate server,” Carrillo says. “Now anyone working for the city can get into our server file and see all the lines that have been inspected.”
A simple scoring system on a 1 to 5 scale (bad to good) was established, taking into account the length of a pipe, its material and its condition. A score was tied into every event in the database and that information was used alongside the city’s GIS and mapping system to create a more easily navigable format for identifying problem areas and prioritizing work.
“We can pull up a utility map of the collections system, click on a line, and see all the attributes of that line,” Carrillo says. “And then there’s a hyperlink you can select to see the actual video inspection, the score and any reports. There’s also a secondary map that just has the numerical scores of the entire system and color coordinates our troubled areas. Once we started moving this way, we were able to start coordinating these inspections with other planned projects like road overlays and other utility repairs. That has really turned into a big win-win for us.”
The challenges of a small staff
Growing the cleaning and inspection program has not been without its challenges. One is maintaining such a proactive approach with a small staff, says Carrillo.
“We have a base amount of footage we need to do per month, but we’re fairly lenient because we know the staff gets pulled in multiple directions all the time,” he says.
For example, earlier in the summer Fruita had an opportunity to extend its money slotted for chipseal projects by working alongside the county. More Public Works staff was needed to help set up traffic control, haul gravel and run equipment, so the collections crew was called on to join the road crew for a solid month and put their cleaning and inspecting specialties on hold.
“With only 13 employees in Public Works, sometimes other things take priority,” Carrillo says. “About seven months out of the year, we’re focused on collections, but otherwise we’re doing things like running dump trucks. We’re small enough that we all kind of do everything all the time. So for cleaning and inspecting, what it really comes down to is what we do by the year. Some months are greater than others, but we really like to maintain a two-year schedule for cleaning and a three-year schedule for inspection. If we’re a mile short, it’s not the end of the world, but we try to stay as close as possible to that schedule.”
Keeping that schedule means cleaning about 35 miles of sewer line every year and inspecting about 25 miles. Carrillo says Link and Wulff each keep their own schedule. On a typical day, they’ll come in, prep their equipment, and go out in the field for eight hours. The Vactor will take about two loads to the treatment plant, and anywhere from five to 25 inspections will be done depending on the area and the length of the line. The next day, before heading out again, Link will enter all the previous day’s events into the database — every line that was cleaned and any additional notes. After four full days of inspections, Wulff will usually spend a day exporting everything from the camera into the database, adding notes and scoring each line on the 1 to 5 scale. Any immediate concerns are dealt with along the way.
“There are interruptions during the day,” Carrillo says. “If something needs immediate attention, like a collapsed pipe, it’s brought to management and we are reactive to that while still staying proactive with our long-term assessments.”
There are also a few chronic problem areas that are removed from the regular cleaning and inspection cycle and monitored more closely.
“We currently have three troubled sewers that are checked visually every other week and cleaned every three months,” Carrillo says. “We run a camera about every six months to make sure the problem is not worse, but it depends on the issue. If it’s just a grease issue without any real physical problems, we may not need to send a camera down there that often. But it’s normally a three-month cleaning cycle for a troubled area. We do that to limit the possibility of an SSO.”
Another challenge, especially being a smaller municipality, is funding the cleaning and inspection program, as well as the needed repairs and replacements it brings to light. Fruita is currently replacing about a 1/4 mile of pipe a year, an amount Carrillo says is acceptable considering the capital funds available, but he’d like to do more.
“You can’t raise rates all the time,” he says.
So Fruita tries to maximize value in all areas. Equipment is replaced or upgraded at certain intervals, but it’s well taken care of so that replacement doesn’t have to occur prematurely. The city maintains a replacement fund that takes into account the life of a vehicle or piece of equipment and the cost of replacement, and purchases are scheduled for the appropriate time.
“We’re still running the same Vactor purchased in 2002 and it’s been great,” Carrillo says. “But we’ve met the time frame now, so we’re in the process of getting a new one.”
And when it comes to maintenance, repairs and replacement, Carrillo says his advice to other small utilities is to look at it all with a long-term view.
“The biggest thing to remember is that everything costs money, but in the large spectrum you need to determine the long-term savings over the cost today,” he says.
For example, the money put into regularly cleaning and inspecting the system has cut down on Fruita’s lift station maintenance in the long term. Carrillo says there used to be up to 10 maintenance callouts a month on average because of debris, rags and grease coming into the lift stations. Now the city sometimes goes months without a single lift station issue, and when there is a problem, it’s typically a power outage or a mechanical or electrical failure — not anything collections system related.
“You don’t have to blow your budget, but if you’re able to do something to reduce maintenance costs and treatment costs and increase the capacity of the collections system without actually expanding the system, that’s worthwhile,” Carrillo says. “You’ll be money ahead in the end. The long-term investment in infrastructure always needs to be in the back of your head.”
Fruita’s cleaning and inspection program has helped a great deal in identifying where those long-term investments are best spent, he adds.
“Slowly but surely we’re taking care of issues.”
Applying the scoring system
The city of Fruita, Colorado, has a simple system for assessing the condition of its collections system: a scale of 1 to 5, bad to good. The length of the pipe, its material and the number of defects all come into play. But applying that scoring system to what repair work is prioritized and completed is a little more involved. For example, take a 300-foot section of clay tile with no root problems but a large hole in one portion.
“That line would probably score a 1 right off the bat,” says John Carrillo, senior maintenance partner with the city’s Public Works Department and part of a three-person crew that oversees the collections system. “From there we would evaluate the cost of a repair against the result. If we dug up a 6-foot section of road and replaced that bad portion with two couplings and a section of PVC, does that turn it from a 1 to a 4? That’s how we look at it.”
Ease of maintenance is another factor that can come into play. For instance, Carrillo says there is a problem pipe in Fruita with a 60-foot-long sag where grease quickly accumulates and the line is on a four-month cleaning cycle to prevent blockages. Compare that against a line that hasn’t yet had any major problems, but is only accessible through one manhole and only a portion of it can be cleaned and inspected. The latter would likely receive the lower score and have a higher replacement priority.
“We look at that situation and say, ‘We’re spending resources frequently to maintain this line with a 60-foot-long sag, but at least we are able to maintain it,’” Carrillo says. “Even though we’re not getting callouts on the other line, we’re unable to maintain it. If there is a problem, we have no way of taking care of it. So there’s some of that factored into the scoring as well.”