The sheer size of the sewer market is difficult to determine, according to a group of experts comprised of Bill Ryan of the Portland, Ore., Bureau of Environmental Services, Dennis Doherty of Trenchless Technologies, Mark Harris of American Water Services Underground Inc, and David Bennett of Bennett/Staheli Engineers. These engineers, contractors and municipal leaders estimate the market to be $1 billion or less per year in the United States. That figure could rise along with the need for improved sewers. However, the question is where is the funding going to come from? And will there be enough quality contractors available to fill those jobs as more sewer work is inevitable?
The importance of maintaining and upgrading sewer pipeline boils down to the quality of human life, says Mark Harris, president of American Water, a water resource, operations, management and development company that serves municipalities across the United States.
“[Sewers are] half of the equation; water in, water out,” Harris says. “How and where we dispose of our wastewater affects our environment, thereby our lifestyles and our very lives.”
Sewers are important to every community, but so is finding a way to keep those sewers in good shape. Trenchless Technology asked its experts about the sewer market, its health and what its prospects are for the years to come.
How would you describe the condition of the sewer market? Is it weak or strong? Declining or growing? What is the cause for this condition?
Bill Ryan, chief engineer for the City of Portland Bureau of Environmental Services: The sewer market is somewhat overwhelmed at this time due to several years of very little work causing a constriction of the market. Now our agency, as well as others in Oregon and Washington, are putting out lots of work and finding few bidders available. This has had an influence on bid prices, which has compounded the impact of recent cost increases.
Dennis Doherty, P.E., senior project manager for Trenchless Technologies: With the advent of CMOM, GASP-34 and now asset management along with U.S. EPA and state environmental agencies consent decrees, the trenchless sewer market is growing and becoming stronger. Although federal and state environmental dollars are decreasing or staying stagnant, thanks to efforts by organizations such as NASTT, many small- and medium-size communities throughout the nation have learned the benefits of using non-intrusive trenchless methods. The small- and medium-size communities are realizing that trenchless methods bring value to the community.
What are the needs in order to improve and/or maintain market strength?
Ryan: More competition and a slow down in the rate at which costs for fuel and materials are increasing.
David Bennett, Ph.D., P.E., Bennett/Staheli Engineers: Funding and political stability. California has been very proactive in establishing developer impact fees to pay for infrastructure associated with new housing and commercial/industrial growth. Many states have not been as proactive or fortunate to be able to pass laws to authorize this type of funding mechanism.
What are the main concerns within the market right now?
Ryan: The incredible increases in fuel and material costs are the main concerns. Our most conservative estimates based on historic costs can’t keep up with the increases.
Doherty: Funding sources to conduct sewer and water projects. As has been pointed out by the ASCE Infrastructure Report Card, the condition of underground infrastructure is in poor condition and quickly approaching or passing its useful life, especially in the older cities. The Report Card further goes on to state a significant shortfall in funding needed to replace and/or rehabilitate the aged infrastructure.
With the lack of funding competition for the available funding is forcing prices downward. One advantage of this is more efficiency, but one downfall is quality control and cutting corners in material and workmanship due to pressures to meet financial goals of the operating companies. On the other hand, there are many companies and individuals in the industry with the integrity to do the job right and to educate their clients. We need more of these people.
What role do trenchless technologies serve in addressing sewer projects?
Ryan: We are using trenchless technologies more and more….The higher the price of fuel and materials go, the more of a winner trenchless technology becomes. Street restoration for an open-cut project takes on a whole new meaning when asphalt prices increase 30 percent in less than a year.
Doherty: Trenchless methods have begun to play a significant role in infiltration/inflow (I/I) reduction and the benefits that come along with system hydraulic improvements. Improved hydraulics due to reduced I/I and smoother wall liners, as well as increased capacity, reduces operating cost to the utility owner in terms of energy required for pump stations and treatment plants and reduced amounts of chemicals required for treatment, as well as the sizeof these facilities.
Bennett: On the West Coast, trenchless technology is often the first choice rather than an after-thought. Municipal sewer districts are listening to residents and businesses and striving to minimize disruption to traffic, reduce noise, dust, etc., through proactive use of trenchless technologies.
On the other hand, we are working on many projects today that could not be done without trenchless technology. If trenchless technology did not exist, someone would have to invent it to be able to construct these projects. In this category are interstate crossings deep river crossings, etc. using HDD and microtunneling, as well as auger boring and pipe-jacking.
What new technologies are improving how sewer work is completed?
Ryan: Trenchless technologies have made a major improvement in how we do our work. We also have seen great improvement in sewer inspection technology that helps us assess condition and plan our work accordingly.
Bennett: Incremental improvements in existing trenchless technologies continue to advance the state of practice. I don’t see sweeping changes and entirely new technologies, but do see improvements and innovations in how the technologies are implemented. I see improvements in design practice that result from experience, albeit sometimes unfortunate experiences. Larger diameters, longer drives and increasingly more challenging ground conditions are ratcheting up the risks and challenges.
How are regulations (such as CMOM or GASP-34) affecting how sewer projects and maintenance are approached?
Mark Harris: Too early to tell, but if it goes according to plan, we should see more rehab and repair projects in the future, again based on the availability of funds.
Ryan: They are pushing us faster in a direction we were already headed — advanced asset management. We can’t afford to make any mistakes with how we are spending our maintenance dollars and asset management is the best tool we have for doing it right.
What kind of environmental concerns and regulations are affecting sewer projects? How are those addressed?
Doherty: SSO and CSO issues are requiring utility owners to tighten up their systems by reducing I/I. Many of the CSO problems are related to the older systems in the older cities that are highly urbanized. The trenchless rehabilitation methods are being used to reduce I/I and improve system hydraulics and the new installation trenchless methods such as microtunneling are ideal for installing interceptor relief in and increasing capacity in the highly urbanized areas.
Bennett: Environmental and permitting issues are driving the demand and setting the criteria for design and construction. We spend far more time today fashioning solutions to environmental and permitting issues than we do on technical issues.
How does political and community support affect sewer projects?
Doherty: There is still much educating required to let the public know what is going on and why. The old “out of sight, out of mind” and “not in my back yard” still apply to a large extent. The older, more established large utility owners such as in Boston, Portland, Los Angeles, Atlanta, St. Louis, etc. are doing a great job at gaining public consensus on sewer projects.
A recent report by a group from a delegation from British Water who visited the United States. this past spring to review how the United States handles sewer work was surprised at how much public involvement there is in the decision-making process. On top of this, the Penn State PBS station under the sponsorship of the U.S. EPA and BAMI-I are preparing educational video packages to educate the public on the importance of the underground infrastructure and how it relates to the clean environment and cost to maintain the infrastructure. This, in combination with the growing acceptance and in some cases demand for use of trenchless methods by the public will provide for a growing demand and use of trenchless methods. The future looks bright.
How do sewers rank in relation to infrastructure concerns?
Harris: Not very high in the public eye; out of sight, out of mind. Roads seem to take center stage because people sit in traffic jams all day long. Most people do not have any idea where it all goes when they flush their toilets. They know it ends up at the sewer plant but have no idea how it gets there.
Ryan: It is hard to say one is greater than another. Our transportation infrastructure and drinking water infrastructure are also suffering the combined effects of aging, increasing regulation, costs spiraling ever higher and limited support for increasing expenditures. These shared challenges are resulting in much greater cooperation among the infrastructure managers, which is a big improvement.
How do you encourage support for sewer initiatives?
Harris: Better public awareness of the problems. People in the United States do not think about where their water comes from or where it goes as long as it’s there when they want it. If they don’t change their perception, they’ll soon find that their water won’t be there when they need it.
Bradley Kramer is assistant editor of Trenchless Technology.