Kansas Utility Builds Self-Reliance

Olathe is reaping the rewards of stretching its in-house maintenance and rehabilitation capabilities.

Kansas Utility Builds Self-Reliance

Troy Wilson applies sealant to a new Cretex Pro Ring to be installed on an existing manhole along a bike/pedestrian trail.

Olathe, Kansas, is a growing suburb of the Kansas City metropolitan area with 141,000 people and almost 11,000 manholes. Ira Speer oversees the systematic revitalization of the manholes as part of his supervision of the wastewater and water systems in the state’s fourth largest city.

Manholes are not Speer’s exclusive focus. As supervisor of field operations in the utilities department, he oversees projects for the city’s wastewater, water distribution and lift station systems. In addition, if the manager of the city’s in-house utilities construction crew isn’t available, Speer is the man they turn to.

A native of the area — his home is Wellsville, 21 miles southwest of Olathe — the 40-year-old Speer needed a job 16 years ago, signed up as an inexperienced worker in the Olathe utilities department and rose to his current position.

Of the 46 employees in the utilities department, a crew of 15 is tasked with sewer system work. They are grouped into specialty crews — inflow and infiltration, manhole, lift station, etc. — Public Works employees generally are cross-trained to step in and complete necessary tasks outside their areas of expertise. This is true of both water and wastewater staff members.

“We do a lot of cross-training, even someone in daily operations. If someone goes on vacation, we’ll pull someone from a different crew,” Speer says. “We want an employee to have at least a general knowledge of other work. It gives them opportunities to grow. Some, like me, came to the work without knowing much about it. Some employees like the water system better than wastewater, but cross-training gives all of them more options and gives supervisors options as well.”

Besides doing urgent tasks that periodically crop up and require shuffling of personnel, cross-trained workers are also able to cover for one another on weekends when emergency calls sometimes come in. A cross-trained wastewater crew member usually has enough general knowledge to take care of, say, a leaking water distribution line.

Assessing the system

Olathe is methodically assessing and rehabilitating its manholes and mains, a project going well enough to have warranted a presentation by Speer earlier this year to other utility departments. In it, he walked through Olathe’s 10-step process of assessing, fixing and sustaining various components of the system.

Assessments are chiefly based on CCTV inspections. The city has three trucks outfitted with cameras to do the work. First, though, the department’s cleaning crew methodically flushes a segment of pipe using one of the department’s two combination hydrovac trucks or a jetter unit. It is constant work. The crew is tasked to clean 750,000 feet of line annually — or about 140 miles of the 446-mile network of PVC and clay pipe.

Then the city’s camera crew moves in to produce a visual baseline of the condition of a line or manhole. The inspection crew scores each manhole or line segment, and all the scores are prioritized for scheduling of repair or replacement work. The department’s goal is to inspect and score 2,000 manholes and 385,000 feet of pipe each year.

Crews have begun using a new hand-held laser scanner to evaluate the infrastructure. The collected CCTV images and laser data are supposed to help the department manage the system — and it appears to be working: The 2019 goal was to have a dozen or fewer pipeline blockages; to date, the city has experienced none. “We’re staying ahead of it pretty well,” Speer says.

The city’s wastewater is routed to two treatment plants. The larger one, Cedar Creek, can handle 23.25 mgd. A smaller plant on Harold Street has a capacity of 6.4 mgd. In drier summer months, the flow to the plants is far less.

Most of Olathe’s manholes are brick, but there are also some precast concrete access points in the system. Manhole upgrades include raising the structures to grade in cases where street paving work or landscaping have left the covers low. The city has opted to use a nonconcrete extender — PRO-RING from Cretex Specialty Products — which is fabricated of expanded polypropylene.

“They work great,” Speer says. “They’re lightweight and durable. Because of their weight, working with them is a lot safer from an employee standpoint. The lightness was a big factor for us.” A PRO-RING weighs about 14 pounds and can be installed by one or two people without using brick and mortar.

I&I point repair on manholes includes sealing the structures’ lower levels with grout. Covers are replaced in the course of the repair, usually with an EJ compo-site hinged product. “Old covers don’t have a lockdown mechanism and are heavy to lift,” Speer says. “These new lids are harder to tamper with, are a little bit lighter and the hinge makes them more user friendly.”

In-house or subbed out

Speer has a four-person crew dedicated to manhole maintenance — one supervisor and three workers. They work on sewer mains and some auxiliary lines 90% of the time, with the other 10% filling in as needed elsewhere. A typical manhole project is completed in one or two days — flushed, inspected, grouted, raised (if needed) and newly lidded.

Major manhole rehabilitation includes lining the structures to eliminate I&I. Two years ago, the city awarded a local company a $650,000 contract to perform such work on 370 manholes. “The size of the project was beyond our in-house resources,” Speer says. Each of the manholes had been laser-scanned by the city and determined to be in poor condition from hydrogen sulfide corrosion. A Zebron polyurethane wrap was installed on each structure, effectively extending the life of the structure by 50 years — all at less cost than replacement of the entire manhole structure.

Other preventive programs in the Olathe wastewater department deal with the system’s 22 lift stations and 135 creek crossings. A weekly, biweekly, monthly and quarterly inspection schedule for the lift stations is being followed, and up to $2 million will be invested annually for the next five years to replace or upgrade them as needed. Of the creek crossings, 20 are exposed; and after each significant rain event, the exposed pipe is inspected and photographed to document erosion and any other risks to the pipe.

The city’s aggressive attempt to minimize I&I will continue for the foreseeable future, Speer says. About half of the 180 identified infiltration hot spots have been addressed, most of them in aging 8-inch standard lines. The department is determined to curb the inflow by integrating each repair into an overall repair plan. Otherwise, a problem just migrates to another vulnerable area in the line.

“Inflow has always been there,” Speer says. “With the data collection and inspection going on now, it’s just more obvious. I know we can’t fix it all.” Still, he adds, being able to track and anticipate the underground issues enhances the department’s ability to manage them and budget for them.  

Speer cites the measurable benefits of one I&I project at a lift station: Inflow was reduced by 48%, the cost of electricity to operate the pump was reduced by $88 per month and the whole intervention cost less than $600. These are the kind of numbers that keep employees enthused about their rehab work.

Other in-house maintenance tasks by Olathe Public Works crews include pipe bursting, something the department has been doing for a decade. The utility’s construction crew is currently replacing a waterline using the bursting method. It’s all part of the evolution of the staff and the technology available to them.

“When I started, we had clipboards. Now we have iPads,” Speer says. “Our employees have all the information they need right at their fingertips. Need a map? Pull it up. When they arrive at a job site, all the needed information is right there on their iPads.”

Clearing the air

Sometimes neglected in preventive maintenance routines is inspection of the air release valves in force mains near a pump station. The Olathe (Kansas) Public Works collections system has 22 lift stations, with 44 identified valves.

Ira Speer, field operations supervisor who oversees water and wastewater fieldwork, has assigned his manhole maintenance crew the job of keeping tabs on the valves. “A lot of times, the valves get forgotten about in a system,” Speer says.

If the valves aren’t maintained in working order, air at a high point in the line can become trapped. This reduces efficient flow of wastewater. In worst case scenarios, the air can become locked in place and block flow. When near a lift station, the condition can also cause damage to pumps. So, venting the lines is important for proper function of the system and preservation of system components.

In Olathe, the air release valves themselves are inspected twice a year. During the second inspection, the lift stations are turned on to make sure no damage has occurred. This comprehensive inspection process is routine thanks to electronic service records accumulated year by year and accessed as needed by the inspection crew.

“They have looked at the service records before they even get on site and take a picture each time,” Speer says. “It all really gives the inspection employees a good handle on what they are seeing.”

Addressing problems in-house

Olathe (Kansas) Public Works has a reputation for undertaking more in-house rehab and construction work than most utilities attempt. The city department didn’t decide overnight to do more of the work itself and rely less upon contractors — the work pattern evolved.

“For a municipality like us, it is a little unusual,” says Ira Speer, field operations supervisor. “It came out of management and just progressed. We did a little bit in-house and then began to do more. I think there is a lot of good that comes from it.”

Not every project is undertaken by Olathe crews. A two-year manhole rehab job was contracted out to a local company because the overall project outstripped the capacity of Speer’s team to do it. Yet there are times when doing the work themselves has real-time benefits.

“When one of our crews — say, the inflow and infiltration crew or manhole crew — is out in the field and sees something leaking, if you contract out the repair work, a contractor usually can’t get there in time to stem the flow,” Speer says. “What we can do is quickly address a problem — take care of it right away instead of waiting and putting a big list of repairs together. We all work together when we see one of these issues in our system. We make a work order and get on it.”

Repairs are seasonal in eastern Kansas, a place where the average temperature is 30 degrees F in January and 80 degrees F in July and 36 inches of rain falls most years. “When the wet times come in April and May, we are focused on I&I work because we can find the leaks easier. When it turns hotter and drier, we shift gears and get caught up in doing point repairs on pipes. We prioritize work according to the weather.”

Speer sees two benefits from the extra in-house rehab work. The first one is obvious: A damaged or broken system component is fixed right away instead of being put on a back burner. The other benefit is the impact on employee morale. “Employees can see their efforts to find problems are highly valued and the problems they identify are quickly acted upon. This helps build the team.”


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