When Analyzing Water Pipe Condition, Where Do You Begin? Here's the Obvious Answer.

A waterline assessment technique helps utilities take a proactive approach to heading off troublesome breaks in key infrastructure.

When Analyzing Water Pipe Condition, Where Do You Begin? Here's the Obvious Answer.

A technician performs a broadband electromagnetic inspection on an exposed section of a water pipe.

Water main breaks are a costly problem for water utilities and a major annoyance to customers. And yet, many water utilities still rely on a break-fix approach to dealing with their lines.

A solution is inspection and condition assessment of water mains, especially the lines that will cause the greatest expense and the most service disruption if they break. Inspection technologies are constantly evolving, and that can make it difficult for utilities to select the ones best suited to their needs.

Now RJN Group has introduced a One Critical Pipe approach to condition assessment. It’s a systematic form of predictive pipeline assessment that can apply any of several technologies to suit a utility’s needs and goals. The process includes an assessment of risk tolerance and a comparison of repair versus replacement costs. Paul Costa, executive vice president and chief sales and marketing officer with RJN Group, talked about the offering in an interview with Treatment Plant Operator.

How would you describe the nature of your company’s business?

Costa: RJN Group is an engineering and specialty field services firm that works with municipalities to solve problems with underground infrastructure. We were founded in 1975, and for many years we built our reputation on condition assessment of wastewater systems. That naturally led us into force mains, which have a lot of similarities with water in terms of inspection tools. So we evolved into drinking water systems as well.

What is different about your approach to water pipe assessment?

Costa: One difference is our technology independence. We evaluate all the technologies available in the marketplace and use the best one for the application. Another difference is that while we perform inspections, often our goal is to not perform an inspection, because inspections are expensive and often disruptive. We want to minimize inspections, and that’s part of our early goal-setting discussions with our clients.

How would you describe your basic methodology?

Costa: Our One Critical Pipe approach is a rather simple methodology. It starts with talking to the municipality or utility about its goals and to discover its one critical pipe. Every client knows what pipe that is. The client might not know what to do with it but will say, for example, “That 1-mile area right near Main Street — if we lose that, we’re in trouble.” That’s what we start with.

Is that critical pipe typically a large transmission main?

Costa: It certainly could be, but it also could be a major line that feeds into a really important area, such as an industrial park or a hospital. These water systems were built without a lot of redundancy. The critical pipe doesn’t have a backup, and if it fails, it can be catastrophic.

 What happens after the critical pipe is identified?

Costa: We conduct a health check where we walk the line. We’re not assessing any technology at that point. We’re looking at the line, the access points, and whether there are other things we could do before we use any kind of invasive technology. Then we work with the client and determine whether we need to do an internal or external inspection.

 Given that the pipe is underground, what can you tell just from walking the route?

Costa: We automatically get an idea of what the inspection access point is. Access is one of the most challenging aspects of a condition assessment in a water system. It’s a pressurized system, and those systems weren’t typically built with convenient access points. When these systems were built 50, 60 or 70 years ago, they had no idea what technologies would be available today.

Other than access, what does the walking health check tell you?

Costa: There are a number of other things we can do when on site to determine the pipe’s condition and survivability. Does it cross beneath railroad tracks? Does it pass under or over a river or around a bridge? There might be internal corrosion, and certain factors are conducive to external corrosion, such as soil chemistry or power lines that create stray currents. All of that plays into the health check.

What is the next step after the initial health check?

Costa: We look at the client’s goals: What is our client really trying to accomplish? Then we determine what the best technology is. There are internal inspection technologies that are like scanning tools that give a rapid assessment — a rough idea of whether the pipe is good or bad. Or the client might be looking for something a lot more detailed, such as exact pipe wall thickness. It depends on what the goals are, and we work on that with the client at the very beginning.

What are some of the inspection technologies you look to?

Costa: We use just about all of them. Xylem has Pure Technologies, which include half a dozen tools like SmartBall and PipeDiver that can be used for different purposes. We’ve partnered with MTA from Austria using its Pipe Inspector technology, a nontethered device about the size of a soda can. It has high-definition CCTV and captures pressure, acoustic and temperature measurements. It has the capability to be inserted into a fire hydrant.

Are there ways to measure wall thickness from outside the pipe?

Costa: That would be like an Echologics broadband electromagnetic, or BEM, inspection. Here we need access to the pipe from a test pit or a location where the pipe is exposed. You would use BEM at typical failure points, such as high points in the line.

What are some circumstances where you would choose not to do an inspection?

Costa: There could be challenging access issues with the pipe where, if you cost that out, it might be cheaper just to rehabilitate the line or build a parallel line. That’s the engineering side that is part of our holistic approach.

What happens after an inspection?

Costa: We analyze the results, set priorities, develop a playbook and put the line into a capital improvement plan.

Once that critical pipe has been taken care of, do the clients want to look at others?

Costa: That one pipe is not the only critical pipe in the system. Unfortunately, municipalities always have more than one. We inspect that one critical pipe, complete that program and then move on to the next critical pipe.

As you look at additional pipes, how do you go about setting priorities?

Costa: We prioritize based on some desktop engineering analysis. One factor is age of the pipe, although this is not always the best indicator of whether we should do an inspection. The health checks are really important — looking at soil conditions and locations. All of that plays into setting priorities.   


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