From Flashlights to Big Data: The Rapid Evolution of Manhole Inspection Technology

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Helix in manhole

Many of us had our hair blown back in 2015 when we learned that 90 percent of the world’s data was created in just the two previous years.

How much of that new data was digital manhole inspection information that could be used to source I & I, identify structural failures, lower costs, and improve system performance? Probably not much, but things are changing fast.

“In a very short period of time we’ve gone from flashlights to pole cameras to the automated Helix inspection system to capture condition data about our manholes,” says Dan Powell, development project manager for the growing town of Innisfil in Ontario, Canada.

The Helix is a new high-tech probe with six high-resolution cameras and six 3-D sensors that capture extremely detailed information about manholes. It is capable of scanning of a 15-ft manhole in under a minute; then the data is ready to populate MACP-compliant software and be exported to a variety of popular system management and CAD programs.

The Helix, which is manufactured by R.S. Technical Services in Petaluma, California, was recently used to survey 43 manholes for Innisfil. According to Powell, it was fast and a cost-effective investment for taxpayers and the town.

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RST Helix ProbeNew Opportunities to Improve System Performance

While inspecting and rehabilitating manholes is nothing new to a sewer system management plan, there is a growing recognition that rehabilitating these essential system components using new technologies has the potential to offer a faster return on investment than other pipeline investments when it comes to improving system performance.

“Low-cost surveys, high-quality, actionable data, and a lot of new solutions for repairing or constructing new manholes are exciting our customers,” says Stephen Mercer, president of Empipe Solutions LLC, and one of the first Helix owners in North America,

“When I show a municipality a sample of the data captured by the Helix, people understand very quickly the impact it will have on their decision making,” says Mercer. “We sometimes survey a few manholes at no cost, which is always a great investment in a new relationship.”

“There is no guess work with this kind of data,” says Powell, a self-professed information junky. “It helps get everybody on the same page, which is invaluable. The crowd that is not interested in high-quality data is getting smaller every day. You show the Helix data to a young, up and coming engineer, and they want it.”
Industry studies have estimated that as much as 50 percent of inflow and infiltration (I&I) can be traced to manholes, which clearly depends on terrain and more. Powell estimates that 35 to 45 percent of Innisfil’s I&I comes from its manholes, which is not surprising since the town sits on the shores of a lake.

“While we don’t have an exact number, our flows tend to double during high rain or snow melt events,” says Powell. “Beyond the cost of treating rain and groundwater, which is considerable, is the lost capacity at pump stations and our treatment plant. Prematurely expanding our pumps and treatment plants is very costly and in our case, not handling I&I can also lead to lost development opportunities for the town.”

Beyond Aging Infrastructure

The town of Innisfil is perhaps a bit more forward thinking than most when it comes to utilizing the new manhole survey technology.

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“We recently used the Helix to examine the condition of newly installed manholes to verify that developers have installed them correctly and they are functioning properly,” says Powell.

Powell explains that in growing towns and cities, once developers have completed a project, they turn over the sewer and other systems to the town or agency that will be responsible for their future operation and maintenance.

“The Helix not only provided taxpayer protection for our town when we took over liability for the new development on the lake, but it allowed us to closely examine the performance of new construction technologies so we can make smart decisions down the road.”

Technological Advances

The Helix workflow is designed to be very efficient and can be deployed from a van, truck, ATV or tripod when access is limited. The operator can access the Helix wirelessly using a tablet, laptop or even a smart phone. System status is available, including productivity metrics such as the number of inspections completed per day. The same wireless interface can be used to record the condition of the manhole cover, take a photo of the surrounding area or fill in any other inspection fields. Using GPS, the operator can automatically find the nearest manhole and even populate asset information if GIS data is available.
While designed for a single operator, Mercer uses a two-person crew, which could be the way to go in some situations. After the first scan, one of the operators completes all of the reporting while the second operator begins the next scan. The two technicians continue to rotate functions until all manholes have been surveyed.

“When we finish a day’s work, all the data is then ready to deliver to our customer,” says Mercer. We’ve built our company on developing efficiencies, which has made us popular since just about every municipality is struggling to fund projects these days.”

Add Safety to Powerful Data

“The days of men and woman entering manholes for inspections are going to be over soon,” says Mercer. Aside from the new economics and ability to capture incredibly complete data, it simply doesn’t make sense to put people in harm’s way

“In the larger metropolitan cities like downtown Toronto, the oldest infrastructure is often in the busiest part or town,” says Mercer. “Due to restricted hours of work, signal-controlled intersections and a high volume of both pedestrian and vehicular traffic we often work at night.”

Our mobile inspection unit can pull up to a manhole, deploy the Helix and finish a scan in less time than it takes to complete the air tests, ventilation and other procedures required to complete a proper OHSA confined space entry. Our workers are safer as they do not need to enter the confined space to obtain measurements and their time in traffic is greatly reduced.

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With an estimated 20 million manholes in the United States alone, you may want to hold on to your hardhat, as the amount of big data on manholes is about to explode.
“I’ve seen the light, and it’s not a flashlight,” says Powell. “In looking at the low cost of capturing manhole data, it should make sense for just about any municipality or town regardless of size.”

David Wren is founder of Wren Marketing Communications.

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