Florida Utility Earns Accolades

Bonita Springs Utilities earns repeat recognition for innovations and performance.

Florida Utility Earns Accolades

Alex Roberts and Javier Sandoval replace a corroded residential water service.

Winning is beginning to look like a habit for the Florida community of Bonita Springs.  

In a nine-year period, Bonita Springs Utilities has been a six-time winner of the American Water Works Association Florida Section’s annual Water Distribution System award for its division (for systems with 20,000 to 29,999 connections): in 2009, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2015 and most recently 2017.

You can credit a culture of safety, innovation, attention to detail and teamwork for the repeat honors, says Andy Koebel, director of operations for BSU. Most of all, he credits the water distribution department’s employees. “They really do a good job,” he says, matter-of-factly.

Population swings

Located on the southern Gulf Coast of the Sunshine State, Bonita Springs is about 150 miles south of Tampa, 30 miles south of Fort Myers and 15 miles north of Naples. Like much of the surrounding area, it’s a heavy draw for tourists and snowbirds; the population that the BSU serves nearly doubles from about 50,000 year-round to 100,000 in the winter.

Although the official number of connections in the water distribution system is just under 30,000, it’s the equivalent of more than 47,000, according to Kim Hoskins, BSU’s director of engineering.

BSU’s water supply comes from groundwater wells, some of which supply freshwater, which is treated by lime softening, and others that yield brackish water requiring further treatment, with reverse osmosis, Koebel explains

The region is flat, like most of Florida, so the utility must rely heavily on pressurized water distribution pipes instead of gravity-fed lines. Similarly, about one-third of the utility’s 450 miles of wastewater collections pipe is force main (the other two-thirds is gravity-fed). The sewer system also includes 345 lift stations.

Versatile crew

BSU is a nonprofit, customer-owned utility operation with three divisions: wastewater collection and treatment, water treatment and distribution, and general management, which includes customer service, engineering, information technology, finance and admini-stration. The utility’s 131 employees are divided roughly equally among the three divisions.

But many of the employees are cross-trained, Koebel explains. Most operators in the utility are licensed both for water and wastewater, giving the crews additional flexibility to go where they’re needed.

The water distribution department repair crews oversee maintenance and repairs for pressurized lines on both the water and the sewer side, “basically because our water distribution department has all the heavy equipment,” Koebel says.

Seasonal challenges

Seasonal swings in both the population and the weather pose challenges. “When it rains here, it rains in the summer for three months, then it’s dry the rest of the time,” Koebel says.

And that dry season is when the winter population boom happens. During those months, “we have to be capable of providing water for all of those equivalent residential connections,” Hoskins says.

But slow months can be problematic, too. In the summer, when the population drops to its lowest level, Koebel adds, “the water doesn’t get turned over as much, so the water quality tends to go down and the distribution system requires increased flushing.”

The utility’s routine maintenance program includes a comprehensive line flushing program conducted at 600 points in the system “that we sample and flush at least quarterly,” Koebel says. The flushing program was among the reasons the utility got its 2017 award, he notes.

Line replacement project

BSU is three years into a major replacement project for its water distribution lines. The project is replacing PVC — and, in some places, asbestos cement lines — and in the process upsizing the lines’ capacity, especially where they feed fire hydrants. The replacement pipes are all PVC and designed to withstand higher pressures than the lines being replaced.

In older segments of the system, the pipes being replaced are as small as 2.5 inches in diameter — “obviously not big enough to carry fire flows,” Hoskins points out. Replacement lines are from 4- to 8-inch-diameter pipe and, in some locations, as much as 10- to 12-inch pipe, “depending on whether we’re replacing an arterial line or a service line.”

The water distribution rehab program started in 2015 after “we started seeing an increased number of breaks in smaller, older pipelines,” Koebel explains. In addition, while population and development had grown, outlying parts of the utility’s service area lacked fire hydrants. Those revelations “helped that decision along,” he says of the rehab project. “We knew that it needed attention.”

The program is forecast to be complete by 2030. That date is somewhat soft, however. “A lot of that is going to depend on the market and what we can budget every year” for the replacement and rehab program, Hoskins says. For now, the utility has replaced about 25,000 linear feet — not quite 5 miles — of water pipeline, Koebel says.

Minimizing disruption

With such an ambitious project, BSU has worked to minimize disruption to water customers through a variety of tactics. Individual project segments are usually kept relatively short so that they can be completed quickly and inconvenience a small number of customers at any one time, Hoskins and Koebel say.

While water might be shut down during the work, the utility often arranges to restore use of the old pipe each evening. “It does slow the project down, but it is the least impactive to the customer,” Koebel says.

Crews also try to put the replacement pipe far enough away from the line it’s replacing so that the old pipe isn’t exposed to a possible break that would further inconvenience customers while it’s still in use.

As areas have been identified for repairs, “we’ve attempted to prioritize,” Hoskins says. Segments of the system with higher volumes of water transmission and a high record of service calls from the utility get to the top of the list. When work is slated for a high-priority spot, the surrounding area is also put on the list, “so we don’t jump across town too much,” she adds.

Maximizing communication

To make sure customers understand what’s going on, BSU’s website has a construction page that outlines the overall plan as well as details of its first phase now underway and the expected sequence of upcoming projects “so folks can see when we’re planning to be in their area,” Hoskins says.

Before a project starts the utility holds public meetings to explain the details and what to expect during the service disruption. Follow-up actions may include invitations to residents of an affected neighborhood to visit BSU facilities.

“We also have a very good complaint system,” Koebel says. “If somebody calls with a complaint, we try to respond very quickly to resolve anything that might be causing a problem.”

Employee versatility

BSU has also worked to bring more of its routine maintenance work in-house, training its crews on work like valve replacement, asphalt repair, concrete work and a variety of other tasks.

“We do a lot of work in-house,” Koebel says. “The water distribution crews are well-versed in a lot of different things.” Doing more work in-house expands the skills of everyone working for the utility and saves ratepayers money, he observes.

Tech solutions

Innovation comes in other forms, too.

For several years now, BSU has been essentially paperless in its handling of service orders. Field crews have tablets and use digitized forms to record work orders and outcomes. The information is recorded to an Esri-based series of collector applications for tablets or smartphones.

“We’ve implemented a lot of work in our GIS program that we’re using to track maintenance and other activities in the system, such as air-release valve maintenance, any flushing in the system — all that’s done through our GIS-based collector apps that we have developed,” Koebel says.

Hoskins adds, “Our field staff uses a form that was created using this app that asks specific questions, essentially stepping them through the work that has to be performed and collecting data as they’re doing it. We can see all this information spatially. We can organize areas where you see the work getting completed.”

The system comes in handy with the flushing program, too: When lines are flushed, information is recorded on the volume of the flush and residual chlorine in the water, along with other data.

‘Very proactive’

Other utilities may be using similar tools, but Koebel believes BSU may be an early implementer, based on his conversations with others in the industry. “We’re very proactive in getting that kind of technology in our system,” he says.

It’s the same kind of proactivity that’s reflected in the decision to undertake the long-term pipe replacement project, bring work in-house and seek out opportunities to innovate.

And with that spirit, it wouldn’t be surprising if there’s a seventh trophy in the utility’s future.

No boiling required

Bonita Springs Utilities is used to thinking outside the box.

Take the utility’s decision to install backflow prevention devices throughout the system. Literally.

With nearly 30,000 service connections, “there’s a backflow prevention device on every one of them,” says Andy Koebel, director of operations for the Florida water distribution and wastewater collection utility.

And the devices were installed — and are regularly tested — all at the utility’s expense.

For Koebel’s agency, it was a straightforward and sensible trade-off.

The action was a response to a state regulation that requires utilities to inspect every connection to determine whether there was a well or other auxiliary water source that could interfere with the distribution system.

Putting a backflow prevention device at each connection eliminated the need for that periodic inspection, Koebel explains. The utility also absorbs the cost of regular testing and maintenance for the backflow prevention units rather than saddling ratepayers with the task.

What did BSU get in return?

There’s not having to inspect every property for an auxiliary source of water. But it’s more than that. Simply put, the backflow installations “provide us the highest level of security for our water system that we can provide as far as that goes,” Koebel says.

And it sharply reduces the need to issue boil-water notices when a line breaks or water pressure drops, he says.

A few years ago, after a water transmission line broke, BSU officials were discussing with a local county health official whether a boil-water notice would be needed. Yes it would, the official responded, according to Koebel — unless, if what the official seemed to expect was highly unlikely, there was a backflow prevention device at every service connection.

“I said, ‘Hey, we do have one,’” Koebel recalls. Clearly surprised, the official asked, “You do?”

“And I said, ‘Yes, we have one at every connection.’”

Result: No boil-water notice needed.


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