Four considerations for utilities seeking to stay a step ahead of pipeline maintenance
For utilities across North America, implementing an asset management program is no longer a matter of if but when. The water sector is increasingly tasked with doing more with less. Utility infrastructure is aging and generally underfunded, and according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), a third of the water workforce is eligible to retire over the next 10 years.
As industry challenges like these continue to escalate, utilities are finding that reactive management approaches are no longer adequate.
Proactive pipeline management starts with understanding the current condition of buried infrastructure. Utilities can then estimate when future maintenance will be required. A condition assessment program addresses the famous adage “you can’t manage what you don’t measure.” Yet, despite the importance and value of buried infrastructure, pipeline condition remains largely unknown.
Inspection, monitoring, and analysis tools are available to assess critical pipelines and provide reliable, actionable insights. Utilities can leverage these insights to plan localized repairs or replace individual pipes with damage. Avoiding emergency repairs or wholesale replacement of entire pipeline sections saves money that utilities can spend on other critical issues. These savings, along with benefits for community relations and sustainability, can help utilities justify a condition assessment program. Here are four core considerations for utilities seeking to stay a step ahead of pipeline maintenance.
Most condition assessment programs aim to reduce risk and prevent critical pipeline failures while minimizing asset life cycle costs. Balancing risk mitigation and cost is key to a successful pipeline management strategy.
Failures and emergency repairs result in significant costs for utilities and often cause major disruptions to communities. A large-diameter pipe failure can cost a community well over $1 million. Direct and societal costs add up with impacts ranging from loss of water service and boil water notices to road closures and property damage. Pipe breaks can significantly affect local businesses, hospitals, and other critical infrastructure. Understanding the social, economic, and environmental consequences of failure helps utilities make the case for condition assessment.
For instance, a municipality in western Canada experienced a catastrophic failure on a 48-inch prestressed concrete cylinder pipe (PCCP) in 2004. The failure disrupted service to more than 100,000 customers, and the resulting flooding shut down a major transportation corridor for days. The city responded by developing a proactive condition assessment program. They built a justified assessment strategy by assigning risk scores to their critical water mains based on consequence and probability of failure.
Understanding risk is an important first step in prioritizing where and how to direct condition assessment resources. For higher risk pipelines, utilities can use higher resolution approaches that provide more detailed insights and enable more confident decision making. Screening-level approaches, such as leak detection, high-frequency pressure monitoring, and corrosion protection surveys, may be acceptable for lower risk mains.
Effective capital planning
Drinking water delivery systems in North America are complex networks that include millions of miles of underground pipes. Transmission mains are especially critical as they can be the sole source of water for thousands of customers. Replacing these large-diameter pipelines is extremely disruptive and expensive.
In the past, buried infrastructure was often forgotten until a major failure occurred or a pipeline reached the end of its design life (usually indicated by frequent smaller failures).
A condition assessment program gives utilities increased network visibility, enabling operators to understand what assets they have, their location, and most importantly, their condition. What’s more, predictive analytics based on inspection and monitoring data offer a long-range view of system integrity and the ability to safely extend the remaining useful life of a pipeline.
In many cases, utilities can maximize the life of large-diameter pipelines by making incremental investments in maintenance. Cost evaluations comparing capital replacement to data-based management approaches demonstrate significant savings. Avoiding the unnecessary replacement of assets with considerable remaining useful life can free up much needed resources.
For an Ontario utility, a catastrophic pipeline failure resulted in direct costs of approximately $1.5 million. However, the failure also disrupted the community’s drinking water supply and caused serious flooding on prime agricultural lands. To prevent future failures, the utility invested in a condition assessment program leveraging inspection, continuous monitoring, and engineering services from Pure Technologies, a Xylem brand. The utility now has data on the pipeline’s condition and degradation rate. With this information, they have avoided failures, improved maintenance and capital planning, and achieved significant cost savings for reinvestment in their regionally significant infrastructure.
Pipelines are essential assets that provide a reliable supply of clean water to customers every day. However, leaks, breaks, and service interruptions can undermine the public’s confidence in their utility. A condition assessment program can help utilities restore public trust, work toward defined Levels of Service, and communicate openly with customers about the results.
Levels of Service define what customers can expect from the utility. For instance, acceptable break rates, system loss percentages, and ratio of planned to unplanned outages are examples of service reliability measures. The American Water Works Association (AWWA) and U.S. EPA have created the Partnership for Safe Water that establishes key performance indicators that define desired Levels of Service.
Condition assessment helps direct resources to projects that have the most significant impact on service level targets. With data on pipeline performance, utilities can better justify capital and maintenance plans to stakeholders and customers and ensure that rates are based on sound information. A data-driven pipeline management approach empowers greater transparency about where funds are allocated and helps utilities better demonstrate the relationship between cost and service. This can ultimately improve customer trust and support.
Since 2010, a southeastern U.S. utility has proactively managed its transmission network using condition data to prioritize maintenance needs and inform capital planning. The program has prevented at least 80 large-scale main breaks. What’s more, the utility’s condition assessment program offered a unique opportunity to share the story of buried infrastructure with the community. Through creative outreach programs, the utility highlighted how pipelines deliver drinking water, the innovative technology used to protect the mains, and the value of investing in underground infrastructure. These efforts have helped the utility engage the public, showcase their commitment to customer service, and create a positive image of their critical water infrastructure.
Sustainability and water conservation
Climate change is fundamentally shifting the way utilities approach water management. Water scarcity is prompting conservation strategies around the world. Regulatory changes requiring more advanced and expensive treatment processes are also driving utilities to explore new ways of reducing non-revenue water.
With a condition assessment program, operators can pinpoint leaks and improve the resilience of valuable water supplies. Preventing the loss of treated water also translates to energy and treatment savings that can further justify a condition assessment program.
In the state of Texas, for instance, water is in increasingly short supply. In 2022, about 27 percent of the state was under an exceptional drought, the most severe category. For one utility in central Texas, water conservation was a primary factor when justifying their condition assessment program. Active leak detection and pipeline maintenance strategies are key pillars of their integrated resource plan. Using innovative technology, including Pure Technologies’ pipe wall inspection and leak detection tools, the utility is better able to manage their pipelines, reduce water loss, and advance their sustainability and water conservation goals.
Staying a step ahead with proactive pipeline management
As utilities plan and budget for condition assessment, Pure Technologies can help with an initial risk analysis and system plan. The purpose of such a plan is to prioritize pipelines for assessment and guide the level of assessment needed to meet risk reduction and service level targets, within budgetary constraints.
To make this process easier for utilities, Pure Technologies is developing a return-on-investment calculator that forecasts the cost of adopting a data-driven pipeline management approach. Considering remaining useful life and inspection intervals, it compares the cost of a condition assessment program with the costs of a failure or full replacement.
Asset management strategies built on reliable and verifiable condition data deliver significant operational, financial, and community benefits. Condition assessment can guide a defensible, cost-efficient infrastructure renewal strategy that prevents failures, focuses maintenance where it’s needed, and maximizes the useful life of existing assets. At the end of the day, proactive pipeline management enables utilities to better serve their customers by delivering consistent, reliable, and affordable water service.
By Ashan McNealy, Manager of Condition Assessment Engineering; Lynne Putnam, Client Services Manager; Dave Kurtz, Client Services Manager; and Allison Biggar, Client Services Manager – Pure Technologies, a Xylem brand.