Confessions of a Municipal Utility Maintenance Pro

The Question Is: Do I Own It Or Outsource It?

Without knowing the answer, I and other managers with the City of Olathe, Kan., entered into an objective assessment. This assessment did not require outside consultants, but did require a common sense approach and insight on how operational change is embraced within this municipal organization. This introspection led to a logical conclusion. Most important, it led to a healthy return on effort and investment for the department, the community and rate-paying customers.

10-Step Self Assessment

For public wastewater collection systems

Step One:  Do You Have an I&I Problem?

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Oftentimes, the amount of flow being charged to customer vs. the amount of flow being received at the treatment plant is not a simple matter to find. Billing systems often use water consumption as a base to bill for sewer usage. Of course we all know that all of the water used by a customer doesn’t get to the sanitary sewer. Another challenge is identifying which flow goes to different wastewater treatment facilities. With GIS systems, this is much easier than it was years ago, to identify which customers are served by different treatment facilities and looking at the water consumption data by basin.

Step Two:  Determine Urgency — Pain Points. What Is the Cost of Doing Nothing?

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Oftentimes, the cost of fixing miles and miles of collection system defects is huge and difficult to justify if there is sufficient treatment plant and collection system capacity. However, at some point, the capacity of the treatment plant or collection system will need to be expanded and it is difficult to implement an inflow-and-infiltration (I&I) reduction plan once the capacity is exceeded and you are experiencing SSOs or backups because it takes a long time to develop a plan and start seeing the results.

Step Three:  Integrated Approach—a Multi-Step Solution

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Any recent research into successful I&I reduction programs will reveal that you need an integrated approach to solve an I&I problem. If you only focus on one component in the collection system, the I&I will simply migrate to the next defect and still enter the collection system. List all the proactive steps you intend to take and prioritize the low-cost, high-return activities.

Step Four: Grout Management Program — Most Proactive, Least Cost, Less Risk, No Disruption to the Community

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One of the easiest and least expensive I&I sources to find is manhole inflow and infiltration. You simply perform an inspection of the manholes during storm events and high water conditions. Leaks are visually evident and can be grouted and sealed without surface destruction and minimal impact to adjacent landscaping or lawns. This is ideally done when the leak is active, unlike many of the other manhole rehabilitation processes resulting in immediate visual affirmation of the successful sealing.

Step Five: Should This be Outsourced or Become a Core Competency of Your Team?

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Understand that it is difficult to specify and outsource manhole grouting. As a collection system operator, I need to understand that the groundwater conditions may be significantly different from the time I identified the problem to when I get a contractor on site to grout the leak. Manhole leaks that are not actively leaking are difficult to grout because you don’t know if you have successfully sealed the leak. The best time to grout a leak is when it is actively leaking, which is difficult to do using contractors and local purchasing regulations.

One of the challenges a contractor faces is estimating the amount of grout that is needed to seal the leak. Due to the risk, a contractor is likely to estimate on the high side and any project savings increase his profits. By self-performing these functions, any material cost-savings can be invested in additional project scope. This was one of the key factors in our decision to perform the grout management program with city staff.

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Another challenge is that additional leaks higher in the manhole may activate and can be sealed at the same time by injecting more grout and drilling more injection points. Unless specified in the contract, it is difficult to hold a contractor responsible for fixing additional leaks identified during or after the grouting process without incurring change order costs.

Another real advantage to self performing the operation is that your staff sees the effect of the grouting program and becomes advocates of fixing the leaks in your system. They become empowered.

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Step Six: What’s Required to Get Started?

First, you need to develop a vision and a goal of what you want to accomplish. Then, you need to develop the action plan to accomplish this vision. This is where you evaluate the benefits of self-performing certain tasks, the challenges and opportunities. Costs and complexity of equipment needs to be evaluated. Certain rehabilitation processes will not make sense to self-perform, while others will. What I have found is those with minimal capital investment, with larger variations in the amount of product used, tend to be difficult to specify and contract out and tend to be candidates for self performing. This is important…find a chemical grout manufacturer you can trust. We use Prime Resins largely because of its product, but also because of their knowledge, experience and the customer service they provide.

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Step Seven: How to Make the Grout Management Program an Operational Habit

By building a self-performing Grout Management Program, your staff will actively participate in the leaks being stopped. They also become a part of the overall solution and understand the value of stopping I&I. Since they are in the field seeing the system in operation and understand the importance identifying problems, they are in the best position to be proactive and get them repaired. Managing I&I is a team effort. Having all members of the team working in the same direction is critical for success.

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Step Eight: Why It’s Important to Measure Your Success.

Bottom line is that if you don’t measure the effectiveness, it will not get the attention it needs. As you measure the success, it gives a manager the opportunity to recognize the staff involved which makes the employee feel good about being an integral part of the solution.

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Step Nine: Re-Evaluate Decisions Made

You will make some erroneous assumptions and some mistakes as you work through the implementation of the program. By re-evaluating the decisions, you are not second-guessing them, but if you have better information, it may change the outcome of the decision. If you find erroneous assumptions early, it is much less painful to change it then than if you trudge ahead until the program fails

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Step Ten: Make Adjustments

Make adjustments along the way. Empower the employees involved in the program to make adjustments and changes. The last thing you want is for the people implementing the program to be blindly executing your plan. They need to buy into the plan and be a part of the team with a common goal.

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Summary & Conclusions

I&I will continue to be a challenge for communities as we deal with aging infrastructure in the foreseeable future. Sealing manhole leaks with a grout management program is one of the tools in a systematic approach that can provide significant payback. On one example, we sealed leaks on a wetwell, reducing flows to the lift station by 48 percent, resulting in electric costs savings alone of $88 per month with a material cost investment of less than $600.

Self-performing involves the maintenance crews in addressing the I&I challenge and makes financial sense. By getting them involved, a greater awareness of the impact of I&I is realized. Since they are out opening manholes to perform maintenance activities on a daily basis, the team will identify and fix the leaks before causing a capacity problem.

David Bries is utilities maintenance superintendent for the City of Olathe, Kan.

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