Underground Aces: Andrews.engineer Focuses on Being Sewer Specialists
When Mark Andrews, P.Eng, made the decision to start his own consulting firm in 1993, he did so because he a saw visible gap in services provided in Ontario. That gap was a lack of companies focused on the condition assessment of large-diameter trunk sewers.
Over the years, the company has transformed from M.E. Andrews and Associates Ltd. into Andrews.engineer. What has stayed the same since Day 1 is the firm’s focus as a specialist in sewer inspection, condition assessment and rehabilitation design.
“Eighty to 85 per cent of our work is in Ontario and our primary clients are municipalities and regions,” says Andrews. “When I started [on my own], there was really no such thing as large diameter trunk sewer assessment. Certainly, the need was there, and clients were asking questions.”
While it would have been easy for Andrews to focus solely on assessment of large diameter sewers, he noticed another unmet need in the industry. No one was able to do the inspection work because the technology was not present…yet. That would soon change as Andrews was in contact with a company in the United Kingdom that was tackling these projects there.
“The two things [inspection and assessment] grew together. There was an engineering need, and we identified the inspection need because of that,” Andrews says. “That’s how we got into doing the inspection work ourselves. People were asking me to do assessments of trunk sewers, but there wasn’t anyone available to do the inspection. That’s when I started to work to get the right equipment and people to do the trunk sewer inspection work.”
Andrews struck up a partnership with Amtec Surveying Ltd. In the United Kingdom, which first came to Canada in 1995 to work with Andrews to inspect large diameter sewers. “The technology was the beginning of using a combined inspection system with CCTV and sonar,” Andrews says. “That was the first use of the technology in Canada.”
While Amtec Surveying Ltd. no longer exists due to financial reasons, Andrews.engineer works with OnSite, which bought Amtec’s technology.
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Much of the work that Andrews tackled early on he was able to handle on his own, with Amtec handling the inspections. It wasn’t until Andrews landed a project for the City of Toronto in the early 2010s, that he started to add staff and the company began doing most of the inspection, assessment and design work in-house.
Today, Andrews.engineer has a staff of about 30 and is headquartered in Toronto. In addition to the engineering staff, Andrews.engineer has a full-time large diameter inspection crew and another crew that handles manhole, outfall and other ad hoc inspection work. Over the years, the company also shifted from a sole proprietorship to an employee-owned company. Until the beginning of 2020, the company maintained a location in Ottawa. Because the space in Toronto is much larger and can accommodate all of the company’s employees, the decision was made to shut down the Ottawa office, which closed prior to the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to Andrews, the employee-owned structure works best for the company because there are no outside investors looming and everyone takes pride and ownership in the work they do. Andrews also credits the company’s success to surrounding himself with the right people who share his love of tackling complex projects, problem solving and embracing new technologies.
“I joined full-time in 2014. I was the first employee in the Toronto office,” says Cloud Zhang, P.Eng. and general manager for the company. “I started when we got the 14-05 contract with Toronto.”
Toronto’s Five-Year Plan
Zhang is referring to what would amount to the firm’s largest project to date, a five-year plan with Toronto Water to inspect, assess and create rehabilitation plans on local and trunk sewers.
Andrews.engineer and its sub-consultant and sub-contractor partners completed that initial five-year program and are now in year two of a second five-year program, which Andrews.engineer refers to as the 19-05 project.
“The unique part [of this plan] is that, typically, the municipality would tender out CCTV inspection work to a contractor, who would finish the field work and send the data to the municipality or another consultant for review and recommendations,” Zhang says. “In this program, the consultant, the sub-consultant, which is AECOM, and the contractor, Pipetek Infrastructure Services, allow the city to go hands-free. We look at the work and divide it up into packages and assign the work to sub-contractors, allowing the Andrews.engineeer crew to focus on the more challenging trunk sewers.”
When the Andrews.engineer team started on the 14-05 project, they knew there would be a monumental set of data to manage. Zhang created a data management system from the ground up. Initial steps were small 2-km packages over a three- to four-month span to help build the system. From there, the project team grew its data collection techniques by leaps and bounds.
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By the end of the 14-05 project the team was cleaning and inspecting 50- to 90-km of sewers and 800 to 1,200 manholes a month. Throughout the process, Andrews.engineer handles the project and data management, and AECOM handles the review.
“The approach to this project had rarely been done before, tackling 800 km of inspections in a year. The sheer size of the data sets is a challenge on its own,” says Zhang. “The original contract was for 500 km a year and we are way over that, so the City is happy that we are exceeding their target.”
Working on this project also led to Andrews.engineer adding 3D laser scanning to its inspection toolbox and continuing the firm’s tradition of being an early adopter of new technologies. The scanner, from FARO Technologies is typically used for scanning buildings or by law enforcement to recreate an accident scene. The system was first used by Andrews.engineer to scan chambers on the Mid Toronto Interceptor, a deep sewer with many complicated to assess chambers. Prior to using the scanner, inspection would require confined space entry, taking a lot of photos and notes which needed to be compiled to offer a complete picture.
“We scanned about 20 chambers. Toronto was extremely happy with the results and we have carried on,” says Zhang. “The end result is a 3D point cloud model of the structure. It gives the client the ability to see what’s there without physically accessing the sewer.”
Emergency in Windsor
The bulk of the firm’s work comprises planned programs like the 14-05 and 19-05 projects, but based on the long-standing professional relationships that Andrews has built, the company is often called upon when unique emergency issues arise.
Such was the case earlier this year when the City of Windsor was faced with a sanitary sewer collapse on Ojibway Parkway, an area surrounded by industrial complexes. After noticing sinkholes near a manufacturing facility, the City found that something in the sewer was causing the concrete sanitary pipe to turn to paste.
According to Ted Li, P.Eng, Andrews.engineer’s sampling and monitoring investigation determined that the deterioration was not due to a single source exceeding its pollution control limits but rather from a mix of several of the industrial complexes’ effluents and the physical characteristic of the sewer. “This created an environment that is prone to extreme levels of H2S. We took a broad-based approach to sample and monitor at different locations to analyze what in the sewage was causing this problem” he says. “Then, we quickly completed a rehabilitation design to fix the sewer’s immediate structural problems and proposed to conduct further monitoring once the sewer returns to normal operating condition.”
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Andrews.engineer completed a rehabilitation design to restore the sewer and associated MH’s structural issues and recommended long-term solutions to help prolong the service life of the trunk sewer.
“Within a matter of weeks, we were able to complete the investigations and carry out the sampling program that informed our rehab design of the sewer to address the core issues. We really wanted to get an understanding of the sewage composition and what is causing the corrosion and to determine the chemical exposures that the liner might be subject to over its life,” says Ghassan Saket, P.Eng. “With that sampling done, we shared that [information] with resin manufacturers to select the most appropriate resin type that could withstand the temperatures in the sewer and resist all of the chemical exposure it would be subjected to.”
While some clients might be hesitant to try a new technology – like the FARO scanner – or to potentially embrace a new rehabilitation technology, Andrews.engineer has the trust of its clients. This is a trust that has been built over the firm’s history and fostered by Andrews himself and all the staff.
“For us, our approach is to embrace change. We think that is necessary and provides us with a competitive edge,” says Michael Yuen, P.Eng. “We work hard to offer clients the best available solutions, but we are always actively seeking out the most cutting-edge global solutions.”
A Trusted Partner
The trust is partially built by the intimacy of the work that Andrews.engineer offers its clients and a focus on finding the right solution to a problem vs. offering up one end-all be-all solution.
“When he started out, Mark was the sole proprietor and he was the direct contact for clients, so when there were issues, you were dealing directly with the owner of the company,” says Romano Del Tin, C.E.T., business development manager for the firm. “It was quick and easy to resolve matters and work through challenges. Extrapolating that to today, that has not changed much. The company is small but growing. A significant benefit for clients is that if they need to talk to Mark, he is available and he really enjoys interacting with the clients, getting to know them and working through projects.”
Del Tin and Andrews note that this is also a relationship that the staff has with the clients as well. When looking to hire new staff, Zhang says the firm looks for people who fit the Andrews.engineer mentality and are willing and eager to learn. “As long as people are willing to learn, they can do this well,” says Zhang. “Andrews.engineer has a culture where the engineers actually get out in the field to see the work and fully appreciate the challenges and understand the field work.”
Another way in which the firm helps foster a level of trust with its clients and helps grow the industry as whole, is through education.
“Helping educate our clients is part of what we do. We offer our annual training event with the goal of connecting our clients directly with suppliers and familiarizing them with the latest products that are out there,” Yuen says. “We provide an environment where they are not pressured. It also allows municipalities and regions to connect with each other and realize they have similar problems.”
Del Tin, who joined the company part-time after retiring from the Region of Peel, has helped develop this municipal training at its Toronto facility. The focus of the three-day event is to engage with clients on a personal level and expose them to new technologies which the Andrews.engineer staff have discovered by attending trade shows and conferences across the globe.
“Our event is extremely well received because they [clients] have a chance to spend quality time with a supplier, and each other to talk about a product rather than a supplier just coming in with a lunch-and-learn,” says Andrews.
While the 2021 event will likely be sidelined due to the COVID-19 pandemic, all who were interviewed noted this is likely the only activity slowing down. There were some growing pains shifting from an office environment to a work-from-home environment due to the pandemic lockdown, but those are no longer an issue and the entire company is busier now than last year.
“Business is booming because there is an ongoing need for sewer rehab work. It doesn’t take a backseat to the pandemic,” says Andrews. “The challenge is that we have some large projects that are team-based. Working from home is a real challenge, especially for our younger employees who have a certain attitude and approach that they like to work together and be collaborative.”
The field crews were largely unaffected, though the firm put into place procedures for driving to project sites in separate vehicles and reinforced the proper use of PPE, hand washing and cleaning. The crews are essentially in a bubble keeping them separated out of the office because if one person on a crew gets sick the entire crew must be quarantined.
Zhang offered up this anecdote that encapsulates the mentality of the team at Andrews.engineer and the overall relationship the firm has built with its clients. When the office reopened in June, employees were encouraged to stay home unless necessary. However, what transpired was that all the staff returned to the office.
“That shows how strong a team environment we have. That we like each other enough to want to be together. If you talk to people in banking or finance, I am sure they’ll tell you they are happy working from home,” he says. “It’s rare that you work in this kind of environment. We are not only exceptional colleagues but also good friends who hang out after work. We just can’t be together as much now unfortunately.”
Mike Kezdi is managing editor of Trenchless Technology Canada.