Crawl Before Walking

Smaller communities should take a gradual, methodical approach to deploying GIS technology in water distribution systems
Crawl Before Walking
Valve attributes are displayed on a GIS map.

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When I began my career as the “map guy” at the Madison County (Ala.) Water Department six years ago, I encountered a water main location program that may seem familiar.

It usually began with a question of what size water main was on a certain street, followed by someone saying, “Call Tom. He worked on that main about three years ago. He should know what’s there.”

In my experience, a lack of accurate mapping is a widespread problem in water distribution systems. While there is nothing wrong with relying on an experienced worker, two things must be kept in mind: It’s not the most efficient way to keep records, and the workers who know the system like the back of their hand aren’t going to be around forever. This is where geographic information systems (GIS) come in.

Communities and utilities of all sizes are adopting GIS, some with more success than others. For smaller communities especially, deploying GIS cost-effectively takes a careful process, from choosing the right software, to inputting assets to the system, to deploying the technology for field crews, to training users to take full advantage of the tools.


More than a map

The experience of Madison County Water provides lessons for other utilities exploring the potential of GIS. The department provides water service to about 28,000 customers in the unincorporated areas of the county. The customer base has been steadily increasing for several years at an average rate of about 3 percent.

The staff of 58 employees includes 26 state-certified water treatment operators. The infrastructure includes 950 miles of water mains in service and 11 water storage tanks with a total capacity of 16 million gallons.

When most people hear the term GIS, they immediately think of a map. While GIS is in fact a map-based system, it is much more than that. GIS is a way to organize, visualize, and interpret specific information about a physical location in a convenient and user-friendly way.

If a GIS is used to create a map, but includes no information about the physical objects displayed on the map, it is no different from a paper map you may have hanging around the office. The information the GIS contains is what makes it truly beneficial.

There are many ways to create a GIS. Not surprisingly, cost is at the forefront of GIS selection, as in any decision related to water distribution systems. When you decide to purchase GIS software, you will be visited by the vendor’s best pitchmen, who will throw a lot of bells and whistles at you.

One mistake many organizations make in implementing GIS is overbuying software. A few months ago, I sat in a GIS vendor presentation for a department in my county. After the presentation, the vendor suggested purchasing $25,000 worth of software to get started. Later, in looking over the department’s needs, we found that they could start a GIS for $6,500. Another department in our county is acquiring GIS software for $1,500.

A good rule is to start with the basics and minimize the initial investment. Acquire GIS software that will help you get information about your system organized and available for use internally. Consider upgrading from the basic software package once you’ve had time to evaluate the setup and how you would like to move forward. You should also purchase a GPS receiver if you need to collect physical locations of water infrastructure to include in your GIS.


Implementing a GIS

After acquiring the software, your people need to learn to use it efficiently. Software vendors have convenient training packages available for purchase. If you are too far away to travel for training, some vendors even offer virtual classrooms with live instructors. You can take part in these classes from your own office.

If you don’t feel like training yourself or someone else, then hire a GIS professional. Many colleges now offer GIS degree programs, and undoubtedly there’s an eager graduate out there who would be happy to help get your GIS up and running.

Once your training is complete, you need to set up your base map. Most GIS software comes with free base map data that includes national, state and county boundaries as well as transportation features, such as roads and interstates. If it is not included with the software, free data is plentiful on the Internet at sites like Check with other government organizations in your area as well. We were able to acquire parcel and owner information from our county tax assessor.

Now the real work begins. Here’s some advice: start big, end small. Gather information on tanks, master meters, booster pumps and sources first. Include information like the capacity and height of tanks, pumping capacities for pumps and sources, and sizes of master meters.

Next, move to collecting information about water mains. Include information like main size, material type, and side of the road. After the mains have been identified, collect the locations of fire hydrants. (Before you start collecting hydrants in the field, check with your county’s Emergency Management Agency office. They may have already collected this information.)

Next, collect information on valves. Include information like size, type and distance from the road centerline. In cases where valves may connect to another distribution system, it is also helpful to note whether they are turned on or off. Finally, add information about your customers. Locate each meter and include its services and serial number for the meter. You probably have this information available, and all you need to do is transfer it over to the GIS.

Another good idea for GIS in water distribution systems is to include maintenance information on the tanks, pumps, mains and valves. This will allow you to determine when these items were last serviced or repaired and will help you develop and maintain a preventive maintenance schedule to keep things running as efficiently as possible.


Benefits in the field

There are a few ways to deploy GIS in the field. The most basic is to simply print off maps in the office before crews report to the work site. That will give them a general idea of what they will encounter while working that day.

The second is to deploy the GIS software on laptop computers for the crews to take with them. At Madison County, we purchased an add-on that allows us to put an interactive map on as many laptop computers as we want. We then installed free reader software on the laptops to make the field map usable.

The good thing about the reader software is that while the crews can view and gather information from the map, they can’t make any changes and run the risk of introducing errors. Fully operational field software is also available so that crews can make on-the-fly changes as they happen, but this requires additional training for users and added cost for software.

One of the toughest parts of implementing GIS is getting the field crews to buy into the idea that the GIS can help make their jobs easier. A few months back, one of our crews spent half a day potholing, trying to locate a water main that had no tracer wire on it.

The general foreman asked if they had used the GIS to help them. They hadn’t, and when we checked the GIS, it showed the mapped water main location was within a foot from where the main actually was. Sometimes it takes situations like that to prove to the field crew that GIS is actually a tool that will help them. This example also illustrates how a GIS can improve efficiency in the field.


Water system analysis

Even in a basic form, GIS can be used as a powerful analysis tool for water distribution systems. In our county, the commission has made it a goal to make sure all occupied structures are within 1,500 feet of a fire hydrant. It could be quite time-consuming to gather this information in the field.

However, with the GIS in place, we performed a 1,500-foot buffer of each fire hydrant. The GIS added a 1,500-foot radius around each fire hydrant when the process was complete. We identified customers who were outside of the buffer zones and were able to devise a hydrant installation program that would meet the commission’s goal.

In leak analysis, we used our existing work order database to isolate all main repairs performed over the past 10 years. Using the repair address, we performed a simple geocode (a process of adding addresses from a database to the map) and created a point feature file of all of the leaks. Once the leak information was displayed we identified concentrated areas of leaks where it would be more efficient to install a new main than to continue doing repairs.


Seeing the benefits

Once the GIS is running at a basic level, you will begin to notice the benefit. Since the sizes and types of mains are available at the click of a mouse, crews can leave the warehouse knowing exactly what materials they need for repairs or upgrades.

Instead of looking for valves during main breaks, field personnel will know exactly where to go to get the water shut off in a shorter time. Accurate information will help you make decisions about your rural water system more easily, make repairs more efficiently, and reduce water loss during repairs.


About the Author

Jason Britton is GIS and contract coordinator for the Madison County (Ala.)Water Department. He holds a degree in professional geography from the University of North Alabama and is a certified Alabama Department of Environmental Management Grade II water operator and Level I tank coatings inspector. He can be reached at


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