Tackling Water System Upgrades

Birmingham Water Works takes a methodical approach to correcting the flaws in its sprawling system.

Tackling Water System Upgrades

Birmingham Water Works maintenance crew member Willie Byner guides a trackhoe operator during excavation of a water line for replacement. (Photography by Meg McKinney)

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The water system in Birmingham, Alabama, includes more than 4,000 miles of water main, some of which dates back nearly a century. Keeping water moving efficiently and rates low is an ever-present challenge.

Birmingham Water Works is addressing the issue by replacing one aging pipe at a time. General manager Michael Johnson says systematically upgrading the system is a years-long process.

“Our plan is to replace all of the old pipe eventually, of course,” Johnson says. “We are budgeting $30 million for pipeline replacement this year and again next year and will continue with a robust plan to replace it. It is difficult to say when we will complete the replacement, given financial restraints, but it’s a priority.”

The $30 million capital expense for pipe is projected through 2022 and Johnson says the job might not be finished for 20 years. “And that’s a conservative estimate.”

The thousands of miles of water pipe are laid across a system that began in Birmingham proper and now sprawls across five counties in north-central Alabama. The system dates to 1873 when Birmingham was just 2 years old. Today, the Jefferson County seat is a city of 200,000 and part of a metropolitan area of more than a million people.

Economy of scale

In 1951 — 70 years ago — city fathers opted to buy the water utility from a private sector operator and set up an independent water board. 

The current nine board members are a credentialed group with degrees from such places as Harvard and Yale, backgrounds in law, community activism and college classroom instruction as well as election to local and state offices.

Johnson says answering to an independent board instead of a city council has lessened politics to some extent. “It is an advantage to not have some of the pressures that city utility systems have,” he says. “It makes it somewhat easier to manage and to focus on difficult decisions such as raising rates when needed.”

The utility is, in fact, the largest water system in Alabama by just about any measurement — 4,000-plus miles of water main, 655,000 customers, 

a 700-square-mile service area. It grew both by building out to accommodate new residential and commercial developments and by absorbing smaller systems in its path. Its largest customer is the campus of the University of Alabama-Birmingham.

The advantage of operating a system of that size is economy of scale. “Because of that we are able to provide our service at a lower cost than a smaller utility could,” Johnson says. “This is a very, very expensive business. When you can add accounts and stretch operating costs across a larger customer base, it makes it somewhat cheaper to provide water as well as making it more efficient and effective.”

For customers, that translates into water bills that are lower than the national average, according to Johnson. On average, the Water Works charges a residential customer $44.63 for 600 cubic feet, which he says probably ranks somewhere in the top third in Alabama. “Our rate increase has been less than the national average over several years and we pay attention to that. We need to raise rates periodically but only to a level our budgeting process says the rates need to be.”

Dig and replace

One factor in setting rates, of course, is the cost of maintenance. As noted, Birmingham Water Works has a large, aging system to maintain. Johnson notes that 541 miles of the system’s distribution pipe is either unlined cast iron or galvanized steel. “That pipe accounts for 14% of the system, but it accounts for two-thirds of our maintenance activity. Some of the galvanized pipe is more than 90 years old.”

Replacing those two types of pipe is the top priority. Most of the newer pipe is ductile iron with a little PVC thrown in.

“The other 86% of the system is maybe 40 years old on average and that’s not where problems are occurring. We don’t know exactly what is in the ground in some places,” Johnson says, alluding to the segments of pipe laid by smaller utilities and subsequently acquired by 

Birmingham Water Works.

Upgrading the infrastructure is entirely through replacement. That is, old lines are dug up, scrapped and replaced with new pipe, or new lines are laid parallel to the old ones, which are then abandoned. The utility does not reline or burst sections of suspect pipe — the two increasingly popular trenchless methods for repairing an ailing system. Instead, the utility lays new ductile iron or cement-lined pipe.

“We do look at technology from time to time but replacing the bad pipe has been most efficient and we’re comfortable going with what works for us here,” Johnson says. “We are open to new technologies. We’ve looked at other ways of doing it, but we’re not implementing anything new right now.”

A significant advantage Birmingham Water Works has in laying all-new pipe is that American Ductile Iron Pipe, a division of American Cast Iron Pipe, has a manufacturing facility in Birmingham. The utility gets bids on everything, Johnson notes, but there are no shipping costs or storage costs when the local product is ordered, which generally means a lower overall cost to the utility when American wins a bid.

The majority — fully 65% — of the utility’s pipe-laying projects are bid out. If a job is notably complex or requires larger equipment than the utility has in its yard, contractors are invited to do the work, according to Johnson. “We have good maintenance crews, but we know what they are capable of. We don’t do the bigger jobs in-house.”

When a repair or replacement project is small enough in scale, the utility has the machinery to handle it, including four John Deere and Caterpillar backhoes. It also has four midsized excavators — two 68-hp Komatsu PC88 models and two 10-ton Caterpillar 308 models as well as a Cat mini-excavator. Or crews can call on a Guzzler jet/vac unit with a 10-cubic-yard debris body.

Moving water

The other pressing maintenance issue for Birmingham Water Works is, unsurprisingly, leakage. Johnson says the volume of leaked water is “quite a large number. We’re not pleased. We think it’s costing us $1.2 million a year in additional production costs.”

The water is not escaping in large volume from any specific points — “We don’t have any big leaks of treated water,” he says.

Rather, the loss is from relentless seepage across the service area — dribs and drabs from 60-inch pipes carrying raw water from four distant water sources. The closest is Lake Purdy, within the county and just 10 miles from a treatment facility. But Smith Lake is 36 miles northwest of the city, Inland Lake 22 miles northeast and Bankhead Lake on the Warrior River another 22 miles west of Birmingham.

To monitor the leaking, the utility relies on electronic leak noise correlators. The devices utilize sensors to detect the sounds of escaping water and mathematical algorithms to pinpoint the area of leakage. Three brands of listening equipment — FCS, Matchpoint and Gutermann — are used to identify loss points.

Systemwide, peak usage is 167 mgd. To meet the demand, four treatment plants positioned in quadrants surrounding the city receive and treat water from the reservoirs and lakes and distribute it to nearest customers. It all sounds very efficient, but when rain failed to fall for two months in 2016, the surface water sources were stressed to deliver the needed water.

“We went 70 some days without rain that year,” Johnson recalls. Lake Purdy, which is in the driest part of the system, lost three-quarters of its capacity, almost reaching a level to where water couldn’t be drawn from it.

In response to the drought, water-use restrictions were imposed and a punitive rate system was set up by which customers could be charged an extra-high rate if they were discovered violating the emergency usage standards. “Thank God, it didn’t get to that point. It started raining finally.”

The utility now maintains wells in the Lake Purdy area as an additional source during drought. And one of the capital improvements to be completed this year is the final leg of a new pipeline that will route supplemental water to the area from Inland Lake. “We are very fortunate that we can move water around in our system and distribute it in a way that lets us pick up slack in some parts of the system,” Johnson says.

Increase education

So, the rehabbing of water mains in and around Birmingham continues, year by year. It is not an exclusive focus of capital improvement funds by any means. The $30 million budgeted to the task is just part of $81 million to be expended the next fiscal year, with other projects including dam stabilization, pump station and water tank repair work, filter plant improvements, dewatering centrifuges and replacement of worn-out water meters.

The meter replacement is a relevant detail. The utility still sends readers from meter to meter, 228,000 of them, to lift covers and manually record monthly readings instead of using a drive-by or cellular reading system. Upgrading to one of the more efficient automated systems isn’t fiscally possible at the moment. “That’s one of the things we’ve been looking at,” Johnson says. “But right now, our priority in capital investments is pipe replacement.”

All in all, Johnson says long-term infrastructure upgrades are on schedule, albeit a long schedule. “We are feeling OK. We’re not ahead of the game, by any means. In a perfect world, we would replace the older pipe in a shorter time, but we have to balance our repair work with keeping our rates affordable.”

The utility is working hard to convey the parameters of the problem to customers, and the public is largely accepting of the situation. “We had a budget hearing in early November and we talked about the old pipe, but people don’t really understand that. We just have to keep educating the public. When we have a rate increase of any kind, people want to know why.”

Birmingham Water Works enjoys a good reputation, the Montgomery, Alabama, native says. “We deal with 200,000 customers a month. That’s 2.4 million opportunities a year for people to complain. So, we get some complaints, of course. We are continually trying to get better at everything we do, because affordable delivery of clean drinking water is what our customers expect.” 


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