Toffin: Developing a complete, accurate, and current dataset about pipelines helps utilities control costs, increase operational efficiency, reduce truck rolls, and minimize impacts to their reputation.
Digging up pipelines — especially large, critical pipelines — is complex, challenging, and costly work. That’s true for planned digs, but it’s even more true when a utility needs to fix a break that’s already interrupted service and possibly caused adjacent damage. Digs are disruptive to customers and the public, including pedestrian and vehicle traffic.
That makes it crucial to dig in the right location the first time, with the right resources on hand, and to complete the work quickly and smoothly. Good data about the current condition of underground pipelines supports all of these best outcomes.
In our experience, 4% of pipes show signs of damage, and even fewer require repair or replacement. You can save a lot by targeting those bad pipes. When you find and address specific pipes with damage, you can restore the useful life of your entire pipeline to near new.
Toffin: Most utilities know the criticality and failure history of their pipelines, but they know less about the actual condition of their underground infrastructure. Corrosion, surge events, and other factors can take an invisible toll on buried water and wastewater pipes. Not all leaks create detectable signs at the surface.
When age and historical failures are the main factors determining when a pipeline gets repaired or replaced, utilities run a big risk of tearing out pipes that still have a lot of useful life left.
Manufacturing methods and materials have changed a lot over the decades. A cast iron pipe installed in the early 20th century might have a useful life of 100 years or more, because the pipe walls were very thick. The useful life of a ductile iron pipe installed in the 1960s might be half that; the industry transitioned to thinner walls after iron was in short supply during World War II.
Unfortunately, this means that many utilities are facing a pending tsunami of pipelines reaching the end of their design life. They can’t just play whack-a-mole by addressing failures as they happen, and they can’t replace everything. They need a strategy for how and when they update aging infrastructure. Getting good pipeline data is an essential step in that strategy.
Toffin: Good data helps utilities make sure their pipeline and valve records match the reality in the field.
Knowing where to dig isn’t always easy. Often, the precise locations of underground pipelines do not completely match plans or GIS data. Where are those pipes, bends, and valves, exactly? A pipe that originally was off to the side of a small road 80 years ago might be under the middle of a bigger, busier thoroughfare today.
Valves are another important concern. Typically, utilities know where valves are located — but are those valves functioning? When a valve is inoperable, it’s common to replace it, rather than repair it.
The Essential Knowledge Series guide tells how the City of Grand Rapids saved money by repairing, rather than replacing, its large valves. Nearly every utility in the world faces this choice, and hundreds of thousands — if not millions — of dollars are at stake.
Toffin: Good pipeline data supports better budgeting. Utilities not only realize more value from every dollar spent on repairing and replacing pipelines — they also can more accurately estimate how much they’ll need to spend, and when.
Planned repairs are always easier and less expensive than after-hours emergency calls. There’s less pressure and time crunch to get the work done.
Of course, more efficient use of resources yields savings. When underground infrastructure unexpectedly fails, a utility may not have the right equipment and materials to fix the problem in their yard. Good pipeline data means fewer emergencies and better preparation.
Pipeline condition data informs financial planning, too. Analyzing trends lets you plan work in the coming years. You can build targeted projects into future capital plans, get funding approved easily, schedule shutdowns, and coordinate with stakeholders and communities.
Toffin: It’s helpful to develop a good baseline understanding of pipeline condition. Even in relatively young pipelines, we’ve seen hotspots of activity — for example, places with hot soils, where the pipe lining or coating is damaged, and corrosion is increasing.
A pipeline condition assessment program identifies red flags early, so you can keep a close eye on them over time. Once managers know where these hotspots are, that helps steer future inspection and maintenance work.
Starting a condition assessment program may seem daunting, but it becomes easier once you start. The experience your team gains with this process reduces the time and effort needed for the regular reinspection cycle. Plus, inspection and monitoring tools are getting better all the time, and it keeps getting easier to get them into, out of, and through buried pipelines.
It’s never too late to start building valuable institutional knowledge. The savings and value only grows over time.