Maximizing the Value and Benefit of Your Utility’s Buried Assets

If you apply a condition assessment program properly, you’ll be able to prioritize infrastructure replacement and always justify the cost

Maximizing the Value and Benefit of Your Utility’s Buried Assets

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What pipes need continual inspection and how am I going to pay for it? 

These may be the two most common questions I get from municipal utility system operators and managers. Many utility systems consist of miles and miles of pipe running under and through a community — all shapes, sizes and materials are installed at different times throughout history.

To further complicate matters, we often see extremely old pipes (circa 1800s) and find them to still be structurally and operationally sound. However, we also see pipes that are new (brand-new to less than 20 years old) and find them to not be structurally and operationally sound. This causes a basic conundrum: What pipes do we inspect first? Old ones? New ones? Critical ones or pipes of a certain material? It goes on and on. 

The questions remain of what pipes need periodic inspections and how do you justify the expense?

In regards to the first part of the question, ALL pipes need to be inspected periodically over time to evaluate their condition. The timeframe in which they need to be inspected can be affected by many scenarios and conditions. I always recommend inspection of “critical” pipelines at a minimum of every 10 years. The EPA suggests every five years. If their condition is found to be partially deteriorated, a followup inspection can be performed one to three years later. A comparative view can then help you determine if further degradation has occurred and whether the pipe is in need of maintenance or rehabilitation. Tackling a full condition assessment program can be a big nut to crack and it is typically best accomplished if broken into an achievable and funded three- to five-year plan.

Establishing a rating system within your utility to determine “criticality” or CoF (consequence of failure) can be done factoring in criteria such as depth of pipe, size of pipe, accessibility, flow, number of users reliant on the pipe, and surface or roadway type. I like to consider six dynamic factors at a minimum when calculating CoF.

In regards to how to pay for a comprehensive condition assessment program, I believe it is rather simple. It is our job as stewards of public utility systems to maximize the value and useable life of buried assets while minimizing risk and consequence of failure. The only way to truly manage a buried asset is to know its condition and LoF (likelihood of failure), its criticality (CoF), its value, what its reasonably anticipated service life is, and what tools and techniques can be used to maximize or extend the life and value of the asset. If you find ways to spend shrinking funds better by targeting prioritized areas, a condition assessment program will always pay for itself and deliver a return on investment. 

Here are some questions to consider:

Do you know the condition of the pipes in your utility?

Have you graded each line segment with a CoF grade and know where your “critical” pipes are?

Do you have unlimited funds for rehabilitation and replacement of buried pipes or do you need to develop a long-range capital investment plan that prioritizes limited funds?

Are the oldest pipes always the ones that need to be inspected and replaced first?

About the Author

Matt Timberlake is president of Ted Berry Company in Livermore, Maine.


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