Back On Track

Proactive maintenance, sound processes and modern software help the city of Longview put its water and sewer infrastructure on sound footing
Back On Track
From left, Danny Bogue, private consultant and retired manager of water distribution/wastewater collection; Rick Evans, manager of water distribution/wastewater collection; and Rolin McPhee, assistant director of public works.

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Sixteen years ago, the wastewater collection system in Longview, Texas, was aging badly. The city had been financing maintenance and line replacement with bonds rather than regular revenue, and the capacity and condition of its infrastructure were becoming problems.

In 1995, the city council authorized funding for a consultant study of the wastewater system and the development of a 15-year master plan for the rehabilitation of the infrastructure. Four years later, the council approved a similar process for the city’s water supply system. In addition to finding extensive problems with damaged sewer lines, “The first study reflected a lot of lines under capacity,” recalls Rolin McPhee, assistant director of public works.

In 2008, the city authorized a follow-up study as part of a 20-year wastewater facilities plan. It showed some lines that needed possible upgrades in the near future, but generally reflected the need for proactive maintenance, rather than recovery. “It’s more of what you’d see for a growing city that needs to improve capacities and maintain its assets, instead of what you’d see for an aging system with a lot of problems that need replacement,” McPhee says.

In other words, Longview’s Public Works Department had resolved the most serious problems identified by the original study more than 15 years ago — by sticking to the original master plan, aggressively repairing and replacing substandard and damaged lines, and being more proactive about maintenance, with help from a new software tool.

 

Making a commitment

Longview is a growing East Texas city with 78,000 residents, up more than 10 percent since the 2000 census. Now that the city’s infrastructure is in generally solid shape, the Public Works Department can focus on maintaining the system. The staff does that with a proactive approach to maintenance, beginning with close attention to service calls.

The department’s three collection/distribution supervisors are expected to work closely with employees to track repair records and identify recurring problems that could be the symptoms of larger breakdowns in the system.

When crews return to a problem line or a neighborhood on repeat calls, supervisors decide what the next step will be. They check the records to determine the frequency and severity of a problem and look at any video taken by repair crews who have access to the department’s three SeeSnake push cameras (RIDGID).

Armed with that information, they decide whether to dispatch the city’s GapVax MC-2008 combination truck to jet the mainlines and inspect them with the department’s tractor-mounted camera system (RapidView IBAK). They can compare the new video with the history of problems identified during past work.

At that point, they decide whether to recommend immediate major repairs or replacement, or addition of the line section to the city’s annual maintenance plan.

 

From the bottom up

McPhee says the annual maintenance plans for the wastewater collection and water distribution systems are a bottom-up process that begins with supervisors talking to field crews about problem areas they have noted during the past year. Those conversations begin early each summer. Supervisors compile the information and add it to data they acquire through queries of the city’s database.

The assessment generally follows the timeline of the city’s budget process for a fiscal year that begins Oct. 1. As the supervisors compile their reports and data, they begin a series of meetings with water distribution/wastewater collection manager Rick Evans to discuss their assessments and begin listing assets they believe should be scheduled for major maintenance, rehabilitation or replacement in the coming year.

The list of proposed projects is then turned over to the department’s engineers, who meet with the supervisors, review the data and watch the video before compiling a final plan of action for the next year’s maintenance program.

On the water side, the focus is on the long-term replacement of smaller waterlines serving residential areas. McPhee says modern codes and the added demands placed on water supply lines make the original 2-inch lines in many residential neighborhoods obsolete. “We’re systematically trying to replace lines that were under 6 inches with 6-inch lines,” he says.

In addition to upgrading the waterlines in many neighborhoods, Longview crews keep a close eye on the condition of the city’s older iron pipes — nearly 270 miles of the city’s 674-mile waterline network are ductile or cast iron. Corrosion has long been a problem in Longview due to the conductivity of the region’s iron-rich soil and the presence of an extensive network of pipelines connecting the many active oil and gas wells inside the city limits.

For the 2011-12 budget cycle, the department allocated $700,000 each to the wastewater collection and water distribution systems for the annual maintenance and replacement program. The city launched a plan several years ago to increase annual maintenance budgets by $100,000 per year until they reach $1 million each for water and sewer.

 

A new tool

One newer tool the department uses for day-to-day operations and maintenance planning is Cityworks software from Azteca Systems. Several years ago, department employees worked with aging software in five databases, and using that system was inefficient and often difficult. “We decided we needed something that worked better for us,” says Justin Cure, GIS manager.

Cure had already developed the city’s GIS program, creating extensive files of data and video records about the location, condition and capacities of the infrastructure. However, he says, the city was not tapping the full potential of its growing storehouse of information.

That’s why in 2009 Longview added the Cityworks software as a plug-in module for its GIS. It is a work order management system that, in McPhee’s words, “sits inside the GIS. From a maintenance standpoint, that’s the piece we didn’t have.”

Although the principal end product of the software is a work order, employees throughout the department find it useful in day-to-day operations. For J’Nell Smelley, one of three collection/distribution supervisors, the system has simplified the planning of meter reading routes. The software’s ability to access and track data also has been helpful in the city’s meter replacement process.

Two decades ago, Longview replaced all its water meters in a distribution system riddled with inaccurate, often nonfunctioning meters. Now, McPhee says, the goal is to replace 10 percent of the city’s meters each year, and Smelley is deeply involved in a program to install new radio frequency meters that will speed up monthly meter readings and improve the city’s ability to track and pinpoint problems.

Smelley says the combination of the new meters and the software will allow the Public Works Department to spot unusual usage and become more proactive in working with customers who have high-bill complaints.

 

Relying on data

A key advantage crews are finding in the new system is the ability to focus on problems identified by using accurate records rather than relying on human memory and judgment. “One of our supervisors can enter a query to find out where we’ve been five times in the past two years with our wash truck,” McPhee says. “They can get a list and start doing work orders to TV this line and TV that line. That way we make the best use of our crews and our equipment.”

The system also helps long-time employees share valuable information about the city’s distribution and collection systems. “Our maintenance crews had their own maps, their own paper books that they would keep,” McPhee says. The books contained everything from information on problem locations and past work completed to deviances in the location of assets. Now, through Cityworks, the maps information can be made readily available to everyone.

The ability to track work orders for recurring problems helps the city take preventive measures. “For example, we can track down places where we’ve had problems with grease,” McPhee says. “It can help us pinpoint a possible source and decide what steps to take. It can lead to possibly some public education about what should and shouldn’t go down the drain. In some areas, we may find the answer is to put in drip buckets with enzymes to break down the FOG.”

 

Customer service

The Public Works Department heavily emphasizes customer service, and a sound process makes it nearly impossible for a service request to fall through the cracks. The process begins as soon as a phone is answered. Office personnel open a service request form on their computer as soon as they begin taking information from a caller.

Emergency requests are routed immediately to a supervisor, while general requests join a queue that supervisors review each morning. After reviewing active service requests, the supervisors prioritize each situation and then assign work orders to maintenance crews. The service requests remain active in the digital queue until someone signs off that the work has been completed or the problem has otherwise been resolved.

Smelley and the other two collection/distribution supervisors usually check the open service requests in the morning and at the end of the day, “so we can track and get a picture of what’s going on out there.”

The supervisors also use the new work order system to track resources. When a work order is assigned to the maintenance department, the information is also sent to the public works warehouse, where necessary parts and supplies are pulled and waiting for the workers before they go into the field. The system also tracks inventories, allowing the warehouse staff to track and restock necessary parts and supplies.

 

Pinpointing issues

The tracking capabilities allow the department to plan its maintenance program on a more scientific basis. “We were going off of people’s memories — the immediate past rather than documentation of what has happened over time,” McPhee says. “Now you can say, ‘Give me a list where we’ve been to make repairs six times,’ and, boom, there you have it.

“In the past, we had the records, and you could pinpoint problems like that after a lengthy process, but you really couldn’t get a good visual of it over the entire system. Now we can ask that question, and right away we can get a map back that pinpoints problem spots.”

Combine the ability to literally see those problems with a commitment to resolve them quickly, and McPhee says the city is in a much better position than it was in the 1990s.

“We’re just three years into that new 20-year master plan and the work is never done,” he says. “But the master plan is much less daunting because we’ve corrected our deficiencies and our system can focus on the future instead of the problems of the past.”



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