Bal Harbour Focuses on Infrastructure Upgrades

Award-winning Florida utility taking steps to modernize and improve a system that’s already earning honors

Bal Harbour Focuses on Infrastructure Upgrades

Bal Harbour Park and Public Spaces utility service worker Roger Daniels tests a backflow preventer on a fire hydrant while Larry Lee looks on. (Photography by Samuel Navarro)

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Bal Harbour may be best known as an affluent and glamorous residential and resort suburb of Miami — a Florida crown jewel.

But like the proverbial king who puts his pants on one leg at a time, the island village is in one respect no different from every other community in the nation: Its residents need water, sewer service and stormwater control.

On that front, Bal Harbour has been making a mark as distinctive as its reputation for luxurious living — so much so that last year the Florida Section of the American Water Works Association recognized the village as top in its class for water distribution systems.

And that’s even before the complete makeover of its water distribution system, now in the early phases. Along the way, it’s adopted new technology that has cut water leaks to the lowest in memory and found ways to streamline what once looked like a staggeringly expensive master plan to rebuild the entire water, wastewater and stormwater infrastructure.

By any measure, the utility is tiny, with 17,200 linear feet of sewer mains (3.25 miles) and 22,065 liner feet of water mains (just shy of 4.2 miles). But John Oldenburg, director of the village Parks and Public Spaces Department, of which Water & Sewer Utility Operations is a part, says it’s able to be nimble and quickly adapt to changing realities.

Bal Harbour is just north of Miami and Miami Beach. The community is six-tenths of a square mile in area and has a population of just over 3,000 people. The high-end residential community of luxury homes, condominiums and exclusive shopping lies between the Atlantic Ocean on the east and the Florida mainland (just across Biscayne Bay) to the west.

Reconstruction plan

The utility system was built in 1946, and with the exception of a section of 12-inch water main that was replaced in 2013, the water and sewer lines largely date back to the original construction.

Because of the system’s age and growing deficiencies, in 2012 the village launched development of a new water and sewer infrastructure master plan. The problems that prompted the plan included inflow and infiltration as well as blockages in the sewer lines, Oldenburg says. The water system also had problems, primarily in the form of extensive water loss, “just because of its age,” he adds.

As originally adopted in 2015, the master plan called for replacing the entire sanitary sewer, stormwater and water system lines at an estimated total cost of more than $30 million. After the first project in the plan — rebuilding a sanitary sewer station for $3.4 million — took longer than planned and disrupted the gated residential community served by the station, the village and the utility decided to take a second look “to see what we could do differently to make the projects less invasive,” Oldenburg says.

That review, conducted primarily by Michael Alvarez, village utility compliance officer, included a complete video survey of the system. In the process, the village and its contracted engineering consultant upgraded the system maps to GIS-based maps. Alvarez and Jason Atkinson, utility operations supervisor, spearheaded the review and development of alternative approaches that evolved from it.

Scaling back

Because of the review, the village scaled back its plan for the sewer and stormwater system, opting to use lining where possible in a number of locations rather than wholesale replacement of lines that would require open-trench construction.

It affirmed the plan to replace the water system, however.

In one village neighborhood, a gated community of about 210 homes, “most of the waterlines were behind the homes between properties,” Oldenburg says. As time passed and the homes in that section were rebuilt to larger footprints, access to those lines for maintenance became more difficult.

The reconstruction plan calls for moving the mains to the front of the properties in that neighborhood. Lines throughout the system will be upsized using new materials: Asbestos concrete 16-inch pipes will be replaced with 18-inch HDPE pipes. Existing cast iron pipes that are 4, 6 or 12 inches will be replaced with HDPE pipes that are 6, 8 and 12 inches respectively. Ductile iron connections will be installed in certain places.

Going trenchless

To reduce disruption to streets and thoroughfares from open-trench construction, the village is using directional boring where it can for relocating lines, and pipe bursting to replace lines that do not have to be moved.

“That’s a relatively new approach we’ve been looking at,” Oldenburg says. Pipe bursting is approved by the Florida Department of Environmental Protection, but the Florida Department of Health has jurisdiction over approving the village’s utility construction plans. “Although the DOH has not had a lot of experience with that approach, they’re very interested in it and they’re looking forward to observing a pipe bursting operation. So we’re confident we’ll be able to obtain the approvals we need to do it where it’s applicable.”

For the project, the gated residential area has been divided into six sections, and design on four of those started earlier in 2019.

A related project is the replacement of an emergency water main from North Miami, a nearby municipality that is one of two water providers to the village. That project is tentatively scheduled to start by the end of the current fiscal year, Oct. 1, or early in fiscal year 2020.

“That will probably be done with pipe bursting as the first project,” Oldenburg says.

Qualified contractors will be employed for the bulk of the construction work, including the use of directional boring and pipe bursting.

Cutting water loss

Earlier this year, Bal Harbour wrapped up a four-month project to replace all the village water meters with Neptune Technology Group MACH 10 ultrasonic meters that have drive-by meter-reading capability.

Before the changeover, “our water loss was somewhere around 11%,” Atkinson says. A leak detection project found some leaks in the water system, but not enough to account for the level of loss.

As the replacement meters went in, however, “we saw a drastic decrease in our water loss percentages,” Atkinson says.      

The reason, he explains, is that as the older meters wore out, they were less accurate in measuring water usage at lower volumes because of the time it would take for the meters’ turbine blades to reach full speed.

The new meters, however, have no moving parts and therefore aren’t subject to the same kind of deterioration in performance. The model’s 20-year lifetime is “the longest life expectancy of any meter that I saw,” Atkinson says.

Combined with an annual leak detection program, the high-efficiency new meters have cut water loss to less than 3%. In the most recent reporting quarter, water losses were reported at less than 1%.

The detection protocol, which also is performed as needed, sends a utility technician to check every valve in the system. The technician uses an electronic stethoscope instrument to listen at the valve site for the telltale sound of leaking. The process takes two to three days to complete; it is also used when signs of leakage surface at other times in the year.

Lean workforce

The utility operations account for five of the Public Works Division’s 14 employees. The water, sewer and stormwater systems each have one dedicated employee, along with a fourth who covers for each of the three as needed. The fifth is Atkinson.

The three specialized employees are cross-trained in each other’s specialty to ensure complete coverage as well. “We don’t have the luxury of having too many individuals to begin with,” Oldenburg says. “We rely on the staff to become as trained as possible. It benefits us, and it benefits them.” The village now has one Level 2 water distribution system operator and three Level 3 water distribution system operators within the department.

Three of the employees have also undergone backflow inspector certification from the Florida Water and Pollution Control Operators Association.

Bal Harbour’s status as a barrier island and the presence of extensive residential irrigation systems on most single-family private properties requires backflow prevention devices in most of those private systems. They’re also required for any building over five stories tall and where there’s new construction.

The systems are required under state water purity regulations. They prevent hoses from accidentally sucking contaminants — whether from lawn chemicals applied during irrigation or from paint used on a construction site, for example — into potable waterlines in the event of a sudden pressure loss. Besides installation, the regulations require property owners to arrange for and document annual inspections.

In the past, that would be done by private contractors, with the village having to verify that property owners comply. “This way, we do it ourselves and we do not have to rely on them to have it performed,” Atkinson says.

Positive direction

For the utility operations, the last five years have been both a time of learning and growth — not in size, but in knowledge, capability and overall effectiveness — Atkinson says. “We’re going in a direction that’s positive. Morale is high, and so is the amount of knowledge in the system with employees. Everything’s working out well.”

Those accomplishments suggest why Bal Harbour received the Division 1 award among water distribution systems in 2018 from the Florida Section of the American Water Works Association.

It wasn’t an award that the utility applied for, Oldenburg says. But it does allow it to highlight its strong points. The department is looking toward submitting an application for American Public Works Association accreditation by 2022.

“We’re able to shift direction quickly,” he says. “We’re able to adapt to new technology quickly. We don’t have a lot of bureaucratic hurdles to go over to seek approval for new actions. A lot of it is just that ability to move quicker than most organizations when it comes to change.”

Going high-tech

As Bal Harbour, Florida, has been undergoing a makeover of its water, sewer and stormwater infrastructure, the village has also been upgrading its communications and recordkeeping practices.

Starting about a year and a half ago, the village replaced paper forms with Apple iPads for crews to enter their work data. The new electronic forms are linked to GIS records and allow the accumulation of a continuous record of work performed on the system. They also provide accurate data for compliance reporting, explains Jason Atkinson, utility operations supervisor, who also serves as water systems liaison for the village Water & Sewer Utility Operations in the Parks and Public Spaces Department.

Records for utility infrastructure and components are in the process of being transferred over to a GIS web viewer Geocortex cloud storage system.

Besides reducing physical paperwork and enabling work crews to keep more accurate records, the iPads enable the utility to transfer large files to compliance agencies and to provide analytics derived from maintenance records.

The iPads also allow workers to take pictures of every component they work on in the field, with GIS records to help pinpoint the work location, adds John Oldenburg, director of the Parks and Public Spaces Department. “We can track every location they go to.”

That’s not the only technical tool the village work crews use. Track Star vehicle systems document the location of every work assignment crews go to, for example. Cellphones provide instant communications and allow workers in the leanly staffed operation to quickly communicate with co-workers and utility headquarters for assistance as needed.

“All those little efficiencies add to the ability of the utility to respond, and also to the department itself,” Oldenburg says.


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