They say that necessity is the mother of all invention. This could not be truer for Forward Lateral, a new web-based software for documenting and sharing lateral inspections between property owners, contractors and municipalities.
Designed and developed by Jesse Aizenstat in Santa Barbara, California – the system has been in the works for about a year-and-half and launched Jan. 1. The bulk of the users at this point are in his own backyard.
Aizenstat’s yard is where the seeds which would become Forward Lateral began germinating. Aizenstat was looking to add another dwelling to his property, which in his city requires a lateral inspection. In a turn of events that many property owners experience, there were problems with his inspection. “One time, the video didn’t play on the thumb drive at the city. Another time it got lost and the plumbing contractor blamed the city and the city blamed the plumbing contractor,” he says. “I had the come to Jesus moment, if you will, and I designed this software.”
With his tech background, Aizenstat worked on the software end and enlisted the help of wastewater professionals to design a better way to report and share the information in a transparent way. Given the recent events with the global COVID-19 pandemic, it has also provided a way for inspection contractors to submit reports and inspectors to review them without having to visit city hall or be in a regular office.
“Public works, ‘God bless them’ they are here to serve, and they are still working, we couldn’t be more thankful. These people are so underappreciated,” Aizenstat says.
From his perspective, Aizenstat can see when the software is accessed and – even with California’s strict lockdown – he can see that lateral inspections are being submitted, reviewed and approved. One of those cities reviewing and approving lateral inspections amid the pandemic is the City of Santa Barbara. The City is also one that helped make sure the right data was in the Forward Lateral software.
“I’ve been using software here at the City of Santa Barbara to drive the operations and improve efficiencies in our collections system operations and with SLIP, we were never quite able to figure out how it would work,” says Brad Rahrer, wastewater collection system superintendent, for the City of Santa Barbara. “Jesse opened the door to that by developing this software.”
The sewer lateral inspection program (SLIP) has been in place since the mid-2000s and last updated in 2013. The City’s commercial properties are on a 10-year comprehensive system wide inspection program. There is no systematic program in place for residences. However, if the City discovers a defect in the sewer lateral connection during its mainline inspections, it will send the property owner a letter notifying them that they need to have their lateral inspected. A resident is also notified of a required lateral inspection if they are adding 400 sq ft or more or two fixtures.
“We send the letter, the property owner hires a plumber, the plumber does the inspection, submits the video on a thumb drive along with an inspection form and then we review it,” Rahrer says. After the review, the City sends a letter to the resident notifying them of any needed repairs. “We had this tangible, physical asset… and we were accumulating a massive amount of thumb drives. If you do about 60 inspections a month commercial and 20 residential, that’s almost 100 lateral inspections a month.”
In the last couple of years, some plumbers started submitting via Dropbox, which cut back on the number of physical copies Santa Barbara had to curate. It was at about that time that Aizenstat got involved. What he saw was a cumbersome process, with a lot of middlemen involved. He also began to brainstorm on how he could help to change that.
“It’s like a dance,” Aizenstat says. “We had to figure out how to get the property owner, plumbing contractor and city to go through the process all the way to completion in the simplest way possible.”
It’s that choreographed dance that has Lisa Arroyo, president Arroyo Trenchless, lauding the software.
“I can document the inspection electronically and I can transmit it to both the municipality and the customer at the same time,” she says. “The customer knows that I sent off the required inspection and it is in the municipalities hands to review it and let them know if there are any required repairs. The resident can look at the inspection, the city can look at it.
“It is an extremely transparent process and it requires no special software on either side to look at the video,” she says. “Prior to this, I would do inspection report by hand and create a PDF report and Dropbox the video to the customer. I would do that as much as possible, but not everybody could do that. Then I would burn it to a disc or save it on a memory stick.”
As he designed the software, it was important to Aizenstat that anyone could access and use the system any extra equipment, software or device. He made sure Forward Lateral was equipment agnostic. Arroyo saw the benefits of this firsthand when her camera system went down, and she had to rent a different manufacturer’s equipment. She was able to upload the video to goforwardlateral.com in the same fashion. Had this been done the old way, she would have had to download a different video app for the new camera to complete the work.
“I am seeing the biggest savings in my time. I’ve increased my productivity, on the back-end processing, in at least half, if not more,” she says. “I [recently] worked in a development where I did about 50 inspections. It worked beautifully. I don’t think I could have served that many customers successfully without having it all electronic.”
When the contractor completes the video work, they can upload the video to goforwardlateral.com from a phone or tablet on site, or back at the office on a desktop. On the dashboard they can fill in all the required property data, file the report including comments, a map of the lateral and still images, and send it off. When this happens, both the municipality and the property owner get a notification that the report is complete. All entities can access the data at goforwardlateral.com.
Santa Barbara does not require contractors to use Forward Lateral, but Rahrer reports that about a dozen are using the software. He expects that number to increase because in 2021, the City is planning to switch to an all-digital submittal process. “This has been exciting because it is not every day that a city agency gets to help develop software to streamline processes,” he says. “We really appreciate the opportunity. It is exciting seeing a government entity become more efficient. Forward Lateral has allowed us to do more with the staff we have.”
The Town of Hillsborough, California, is one of the software’s early adopters. The community requires a lateral inspection each time a deed changes hands whether it be by sale or inheritance. It also mandates that contractors use Forward Lateral.
“What we can see in less than a week [of using the software] is that there is a considerable time savings. It goes from the contractor directly to me and then when I am done it goes directly back to the contractor and resident or real estate agent,” says Isaac Ocon, public works inspector for Hillsborough. “Based on my result, whether pass or fail, the program sends the contractor and the resident a notification letting them know about the condition of the lateral. Previously, we would have to e-mail the contractor regarding the results and then send a physical letter by mail to resident. Now, as I complete my assessment, all interested parties are instantly notified.”
A by-product of an inspection is the ability to export lateral data back to districts in GIS. This is an area that Ocon is excited about. The contractor has the ability, in the software, to draw a line map of the lateral over a Google satellite image of the property and include that in the report.
“This is the only way districts are going to get all the sewer lateral locations, length, date inspected, on mass scale,” says Aizenstat. “To date, sewer laterals are generally not digitized, not accurately reported, living in the dark. Forward Lateral can map them, with huge savings in city planning and response. When more inspections are completed, the database becomes richer. This is useful for underground service requests, street paving schedules, even emergency earthquake response.”
More Than Permitting
While the idea for the software was for contractors to share lateral reports with municipalities for the purpose of permitting, Aizenstat realized there are benefits beyond streamlining that process. Based on that, he also designed a shorter version for inspection contractors to share reports with property owners.
“Any plumbing contractor or home inspector can digitize inspections and create PDF exports of those reports to share with a property owner,” he says. “Then in those districts that have lateral review approval processes, we have a longer version of the software that allows the inspection to be digitized, but also allows the district to review and approve it. It is a new approach to digitizing every lateral in the United States and that is our goal.”