Tying it All Together

Clear data and tight database integration help a Colorado city eliminate SSOs and improve operating efficiency
Tying it All Together
The utilities division uses this color-coded map to determine where they have maintained valves and where they need to go next. It is from a GIS map that is joined back to data that resides in the Accela Automation system.

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The City of Westminster, Colo., a northwest suburb of Denver, has seen rapid growth over the last 40 years. The Westminster Utilities Operations Division saw that to keep pace with infrastructure needs, something had to change. Piles of old paper records were a logical place to start.

“We’ve gone from paper records and VHS inspection videos to a fully digital system that integrates our GIS with asset management software and links to other Public Works divisions,” says Keith Alvis, maintenance management system coordinator.

The Utilities Division started digitizing in the 1990s using a Microsoft Access database built in-house by Alvis. Now, the staff uses Esri ArcGIS for the spatial database, and Accela Automation Asset Management software integrates that GIS with everything from service requests to pavement management, billing, and county assessor parcel records. The new system is called TEAM (Total Enterprise Asset Management).

Results have been significant and tangible. Sanitary sewer overflows (SSOs) related to maintenance have been eliminated for the past two years. Coordination between city departments is dramatically improved and it’s much easier for the division to make the case when approaching the city council with projects that need funding.

 

Handling growth

It was rapid growth that largely drove the division’s move to an advanced asset management system and GIS. The decade when the transition to digital began (1990-2000) saw 35 percent growth, and the two preceding decades saw 158 percent and 49 percent growth.

“Things slowed down a bit after that,” Alvis says. “In 2000-2010, we only had about 5 percent growth, but when we started the transition to digital we were still playing catch-up. Our data management system clearly had to evolve.”

Before revamping its approach, the Utilities Division was averaging eight SSOs per year, most caused by root intrusion or grease. The staff tackled the root intrusion problem with a regular foaming protocol, which is now guided by SSO trends flagged in the city’s database.

Bill Jeffrey, GIS specialist, explains, “We can generate color-coded maps that show where roots are being found in the videos. That allows us to prioritize those pipes for foaming or, if needed, mechanical rooting. We get that done before the roots can cause real problems. That’s a big part of why we’ve had no SSOs these last two years.”

Phil Jones, utilities operations manager, observes, “If we see roots from private property causing problems, we can snap a still image from the TV data, print it onto a standard form, and hang it on the customer’s door. When homeowners can actually see what’s happening down there, and get specific recommendations from us for fixing it, we get pretty good cooperation and compliance.”

Fats, oils and grease (FOG) from residential and commercial sources is also an ongoing battle. The solution to that problem included systematic inspection of the existing grease traps and new building requirements that mandate grease, oil and sand traps for specific types of businesses. Grease traps are inspected every two months to identify inadequate maintenance.

 

Dealing with geology

Roots and FOG are not the division’s only challenges. Westminster is in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains at 5,300 feet elevation. Soil in the area contains pockets of clay, which expands as it absorbs moisture, and corrosive minerals that wreak havoc on metal pipe. In places, the water table is above the level of the sewer lines.

Some of the oldest pipes in the system date back to the 1940s, but 70 percent of those have been replaced with PVC, VCP and CP. The remaining 30 percent largely include vitrified clay, concrete and ductile iron.

Being in the foothills necessitates seven lift stations in the 34-square-mile service area. Grading for new pipe has to be carefully engineered to ensure proper flow rates.

 

Eye on the system

With more than 400 miles of sewer pipes in the system, not to mention nearly 12,000 manholes, a regular inspection schedule is imperative.

“Originally, we were using a three-year rotation,” notes Guy Pineau, utilities systems specialist. “Recent budget cutbacks forced a change to a four-year inspection cycle, but we’re confident we can maintain our excellent track record.”

Jeffrey says everything really hinges on GIS — keeping that database as accurate as possible so emerging trends can be acted on.

“Asset management software facilitates the rapid exchange of information that’s needed to coordinate resources effectively,” he says.

As many utilities are discovering, one way to deal with budget cutbacks is to look at the economics of outsourcing work to local contractors. In the Denver metro area, there are plenty of contractors willing to compete for those contracts.

“We rely on outside contractors for most of the work, and that really minimizes equipment costs, both for capital outlay and maintenance,” says Alvis.

“Contractors go through the usual bidding process,” he continues. “If selected, they get a one-year contract with options to renew for two more years. Then they have to go through a new bid cycle. This promotes competition and motivates them to do a good job. Very rarely have we not renewed an initial contract. We have plenty of good people on tap.”

Contractors are responsible for responding to customer service requests and sewer backups and are on call 24/7. Service requests can be made via email on the Utilities website.

“We treat customer services or sewer backups like the fire department would treat a fire,” says Bob Booze, distribution and collections superintendent. “We’d like to see a response time of about five minutes, and our contractors have delivered on that.” The greatest distance between any point in the system and a qualified contractor is less than 10 miles.

The video inspection of the sanitary sewer system is also contracted out. Data is delivered on DVDs for quick and easy digitization and assimilation by the asset management system and GIS database. Since 2002, all inspection contractors are required to be PACP certified to ensure consistent standards and terminology.

 

Advantages of integration

When the Utilities Division began looking for an asset management system, the staff surveyed 26 vendors and eventually invited three to demonstrate their offerings. Staff members then talked to existing users through site visits, conference calls and Web meetings and in the end selected the Accela Asset Management system. It ties together:

• GIS

• Utility billing

• Service requests

• Inspection fees

• Online inspection status

• Work order cost tracking

• Assessor parcel information

• Sewer inspection reports

• Fleet information

• Pavement management

• SCADA

The integration began in 2004 and was completed in 2010. Those six years of effort are now paying off. The absence of SSOs over the last two years and improved response times are perhaps the most visible to customers. Alvis reported on the success in a presentation to the American Public Works Association (APWA) last September.

“One thing we’ve found out is that this tight integration really facilitates compliance with regulations and recommendations,” says Alvis. “That includes, GASB 34, CMOM, EMS and GFOA, to cite just a few.”

Inside the system

The TEAM system facilitates a timely flow of information. “I’ll give you one great example,” says Alvis. “When we go to the city council with a request for funding, or for that matter, to the grant agencies, we can give them hard data and show them the trends. We can say we’ve had X defects per mile of line, and that Y dollars reduced that figure to Z defects per mile. It’s hard to argue against those kind of stats.”

Jeffrey adds, “Another example would be the way we use rights-of-way permits to coordinate work on a section of street that some other utility is already digging up or resurfacing. It helps us avoid redundancy and duplication of efforts.”

Booze relates a final example: “We had to drain a water storage tank for routine maintenance. Thanks to the system, we knew it would temporarily flood the parking lot at a venue where a presidential candidate was scheduled to speak. That could have been a real mess. When all the municipal departments are linked with asset management, you can avoid those type of blunders.”

 

What really matters

Alvis observes, “What it all comes down to is doing the best possible job with the resources you have, making the most of taxpayer dollars, and building confidence in the city council, so when you come to them for funding, they know they can trust you.”

Mat Cathey, utilities technician, adds, “It’s hard to imagine a more efficient way to run a program like ours. We’ve only had the full system in place for a little over two years, and zero SSOs says a lot about how well it’s working.”

Jeffrey notes, “The GIS is a huge factor, too. With a complete database that can generate color-coded maps for everything from maintenance schedules to the types of trees on public land to SSO history, we can anticipate problems and be proactive.”

With zero SSOs and uninterrupted water delivery as top priorities, the division has lofty goals. The information Alvis shared at the APWA conference no doubt has others thinking along the same lines.

“We’re happy to relate our success story if it can help our colleagues in this business,” he says. “The bottom line is, this job is one of the most important when it comes to keeping a city running. It’s right up there with fire fighting and law enforcement. It’s just not quite as visible.”



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