Palo Alto focuses on decades of superior utility service

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In 2012, the City of Palo Alto Utilities (CPAU) in Calif., entered its 20th year of a 25-year project to replace 75 miles of 8- to 16-inch water distribution lines. The badly corroded cast iron pipes, installed between 1896 and 1930, are at the end of their useful life or too small to supply adequate flow. Since 1993, contractors have replaced nearly three miles of pipes per year, and should complete the work in 2018.

“An important milestone for this project was when our city council authorized funding for the use of more expensive, high-quality HDPE 4710 potable water pipe,” says Debra Katz, communications manager. “High-density polyethylene pipe is the smartest, most economical long-term solution, and is our standard replacement material.” The NSF61-certified pipe is formulated with carbon black and ultraviolet stabilizer for maximum protection against UV rays.

Last August, Ranger Pipelines of San Francisco won the contract to undertake Water Main Replacement Project 23/24, based on design work by CPAU engineers. The project involves installing 19,463 feet of new pipe using open trench or horizontal directional drilling, adding 289 HDPE service laterals and 33 fire hydrants, and reconnecting 15 existing fire services in 12 mostly residential neighborhoods. Crews are on schedule to complete the $4.2 million project in March.

One segment of it involved a one-mile stretch along Alma Street, a four-lane thoroughfare with the water main running down the middle. It concluded last December. Katz commuted daily on Alma, enabling her to answer complaints or concerns with firsthand knowledge. She says that although traffic backed up, it moved as fast as possible given the circumstances.

“The open-trench project reduced traffic to one lane in each direction, and most of the distance was over plating,” she says. “Commuters objected to lane closures and business owners were unhappy because the project discouraged customers. I tried to keep people focused on the decades of superior utility service they’d enjoy by enduring a few weeks or months of inconvenience.”

Palo Alto residents took an active interest in what was happening and asked questions. Crews were courteous and accommodating. Some people even called Katz to compliment workers for helping them back out of their driveways. “Some of the crew would move their trucks while another member stopped traffic for the person,” says Katz.

In another instance, an elderly woman called to compliment a specific young man working for Ranger. She was struggling to maneuver her trashcans around equipment when he marched up and carried the cans to the curb.

“We’re very pleased with how Ranger handles traffic control and the civility of the crews,” says Katz. “Furthermore, they haven’t damaged a single adjacent pipe.”

CPAU, which also operates a gas and sewer utility besides the water utility, has another aggressive maintenance program in place. More than a year ago, they contracted with Hydromax USA to inspect sewer laterals for crossbores on roughly 18,000 properties where gas lines were installed using HDD from 1977 to 2000. “After 2000, we became aware of the crossbore problem and insisted contractors inspect the laterals after every gas installation,” says Katz.

Hydromax averages four crossbore finds per 1,000 inspections. “Crossbores can happen whenever the customer’s lateral doesn’t follow an expected path,” says Katz. “All it takes is someone remodeling the home and relocating the pipe without informing us.” The city has not had a crossbore-related explosion and this inspection program has been undertaken to keep it that way.

The water utility, founded in 1896, purchases 4.6 billion gallons annually from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission Hetch Hetcy system, and distributes 12.5 mgd to 20,000 customers through 219 miles of distribution lines. High Sierra snowmelt in Yosemite National Park provides the water. The city has nine standby wells and six reservoirs storing 10.5 million gallons for emergencies and firefighting.


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