SEWER: Bringing it Back Home

Fairfield-Suisun Sewer District decided to stop using outside contractors and inspect and clean sewer lines itself. It’s been a highly successful move.

Outsourcing may be the rage in private industry and in muni-cipal services, but in Northern California, the Fairfield-Suisun Sewer District has found an advantage in doing just the opposite.

After years of hiring contractors to clean and inspect its sewer lines, the district, about 40 miles northeast of San Francisco, decided in 2007 to bring that work in-house. Today, after investing in inspection equipment and staff, the district inspects not only its own 67.4 miles of lines but also the pipes of the two cities within its border: Fairfield with 243.8 miles, and Suisun (pronounced Suh-SOON) City, with 61.6 miles.

The district has estimated annual savings of as much as $1 million combined for all three municipal entities. The change has enhanced communication among them as well. And by inspecting the cities’ pipes as well as its own, the district gets more for the big picture about where there might be trouble in the whole system, says Greg Baatrup, chief operating officer. “We think we’ve got the program working well,” he says.

Five-year plans

The change was a major departure from nearly two decades in which the district hired outside contractors for sewer trunk line cleaning and inspections. “We did 20 percent of the system every year, so that over five years we would look at the whole system,” says Talyon Sortor, the district’s assistant general manager.

Meanwhile, the two individual cities were responsible for their own lines that fed wastewater to the district. Then came a new California regulation that required all sewer systems more than a mile long to implement a Sewer System Management Program (SSMP). “Part of that program is inspection and maintenance,” Sortor says. The requirement applied not just to the district, but to individual cities.

That created an opportunity for Fairfield-Suisun and its member cities to work more closely together. They were already used to collaboration: The district is governed by a 10-member board made up of the two cities’ five-member city councils. And the district collects payment for both its portion of residents’ sewer services and that of the two cities, combining them on a single bill.

“We’ve always worked closely with both cities,” says Sortor. Now, the district saw how it could save money and provide better service to its communities.

Supply and demand

“We looked at what we had spent contracting out and what other agencies in the area were spending contracting out,” Sortor recalls. “We also believed that the price was going to go up because all of these cities in California were trying to do more inspection work, and there were a limited number of contractors.”

Contract arrangements had been less than ideal, particularly for inspection. “We would get a different contractor every year. Some were better than others, but there were inconsistencies,” Sortor says.

To make the results more uniform, the district had created a standard format for pipe survey reports. Even then, the consistency of ratings was hard to maintain. A full-time inspector from the district was assigned to review all the inspection tapes, so the district already had significant staff time tied up in policing contractors.

For that reason alone, district officials were confident they could save money by bringing the inspection and cleaning in-house. But they also knew the district’s system alone was too small to justify hiring a full-time inspection and cleaning crew. Instead, they arrived at a plan to ensure that crew would have enough work. The district would clean its own lines, but it would provide inspection services for itself and the two cities.

“We had 400 miles when you combined everything together — enough for one or even two crews,” Sortor says. “In the end, we believe we came up with quite a bit of cost savings by doing it in-house.”

Managing quality

Taking direct control of the inspection had another benefit. “It gives us a whole lot more ability to manage quality of the work by having our own staff do it,” says Baatrup. “You get the quality that you keep tabs on.”

Continuing to contract out the work “would have obligated us to keep really close watch on those contractors and tie up a person to do that,” he adds. “Using our own resources to do the work, we could make sure the quality was what we want and what the cities wanted out of the TV work.”

The changeover began in mid-2007. The district acquired three new pieces of equipment: two TV vans and a sewer cleaning truck, spending a total of about $700,000. For the inspection work, the district uses two Proline CCTV systems from Rausch Electronics USA LLC with L-150 and L-500 camera/tractor units.

The systems are installed in a pair of 2007 high-roof 3500 Dodge Sprinter extended cargo vans. They use WinCan V8 survey software from WinCan America Inc. Cameras and the 110-volt electrical systems are powered by a maintenance-free battery system that can operate for eight hours, with no generator power.

The vans record inspections on portable hard drives. For the district, the recordings are archived on district servers, Baatrup says. For the cities, the crews drop off the hard drive once per week for the cities to archive however they wish, and retrieve a second drive that was dropped off the previous week.

The cleaning truck is a 2008 Vactor 2100 PD on an International Workstar Chassis. It carries 800 feet of 1-inch sewer hose, a 13-cubic-yard debris tank, a 2,400-gallon water tank, a 10-foot telescoping boom, and a handheld hydroexcavator hose. It was purchased through Ricker Machinery Co.

District officials had wanted such a machine for some time for other uses as well. “If we had a sewer overflow, we would have to call somebody,” says Sortor. That was usually the City of Fairfield, which has two trucks of its own. The district wanted to develop more resources locally.

The truck serves that purpose and is regularly called into duty for other tasks, such as cleanup work at the wastewater treatment plant and pump stations.

A cross-trained team

The district assembled a team of four and cross-trained them to do both cleaning and inspection. “They allocate their workloads based on the schedules of what needs to be done during the year,” says Baatrup.

Some of those crew members were hired new, but one was Bob Anthony, an existing employee who had been in charge of reviewing contractors’ inspection tapes.

“Now, instead of sitting in an office watching a videotape, he’s out in the truck, operating the camera,” Sortor says. “He really stepped up and said, ‘Yes we can make this work.’” Anthony had divided his time between reviewing outside inspections and inspecting construction projects for the district.

“There wasn’t a huge learning curve,” Sortor adds. “We did bring in a new program ourselves, but because we had assigned the person who was overseeing the work before, he was already very knowledgeable about cleaning methods and inspection. He already knew what worked.”

The equipment was in place and the employees were trained by September of 2007, and between then and June 2008 the district set about cleaning and inspecting 20 percent of the lines for which it is responsible, Baatrup says. As before, the goal is to cover the entire system over five years.

The standard procedure is to clean a segment of line, then inspect it with the TV equipment. While most lines are on the five-year schedule, specific areas — grease “hot spots” and inverted siphons in the system, for example — are put on a more frequent rotation. The district and city departments are in frequent communication, so that city crews clean pipes shortly before the district is scheduled to inspect them.

It demands a lot of communication, but nothing fancy — just telephone calls, typically, Baatrup says. Surprisingly, “there are not that many meetings,” he adds. “It’s remarkable how interactive the crews are. That’s one of the keys to the success of that program so far.”

Other benefits

When the district first decided to bring inspection and cleaning in-house, it technically went only halfway. That’s because at the time the Fairfield-Suisun treatment plant itself was operated by an outside contractor. That contractor, Aquarion, also took responsibility at first for the in-house cleaning, while district employees conducted the inspections for the cities and the district once that came in-house.

In mid-2008, however, the district ended its contract with Aquarion. Today, district employees also operate the plant.

Inspecting for the cities pays dividends in other ways. It gives the district a direct handle on the condition of the entire system it serves. Even going back to when it hired outside contractors for inspection, the district had diligently identified and fixed problems in its own lines, and that continues. “At the end of the year we take that data we collect and determine what repair work needs to be done,” says Baatrup.

But most wet-weather inflow and infiltration was believed to come from the smaller city lines.

“We wanted to use the funds that were available to target the worst areas,” Sortor says. “The only way we could do that, we felt, was to go out and inspect it. Some of them had not been inspected for a long time.”

The district doesn’t tell the individual cities what to do with their inspection information, Baatrup says, but keeping those communities better informed helps them set their own cleaning priorities.

Baatrup and Sortor say the district has no regrets about taking over inspection and cleaning, and no one has second-guessed the decision. Baatrup observes, “We’re very, very satisfied. I don’t think there was ever really a point where we said, ‘Maybe we didn’t think this thing through clearly.’ And our relationship with the cities is enhanced. It was already pretty good, and it’s even better now.”


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