All that Glitters is NOT Gold

Scott McDonald

Author: Scott McDonald Posted on: Sep 18 2015

Making Sense of New Technologies
Wastewater service providers are notoriously slow to adapt to technological advancements.. Part of this is due to the limited available funding to take risks on cutting edge technology. Over the past few years, however, things have started to change. The advent of geographical information systems (GIS) now allows wastewater service providers to map and keep track of the location and condition of their existing infrastructure. The passage of the Clean Water Act in 1972 created a stronger Federal and State regulatory focus on developing asset management programs as a key part of implementing water pollution control standards. As a result, an increasing number of utilities and municipalities are now looking for advanced technological solutions to assist them with meeting these targets.

Unfortunately, making sense of the dizzying amount of new technology can be overwhelming at times. Too often, these “amazing technological solutions” are more focused on glittering marketing campaigns rather than producing products that will actually provide useful, actionable information. It is no wonder wastewater service providers feel overwhelmed when it comes to making the right choice for their needs.

The Shiniest Toy is Not Always the best.
One product solution currently being touted as cutting-edge is the use of video inspection of sanitary sewer manholes to produce a “3D model”. While it certainly produces stunning views of the interior of manholes and allows post inspection measurement of the interior structures and defects, the real question that should be asked is “So what?” If these products do not include the underlying condition information required to properly assess and prioritize these manholes for future rehabilitation projects, what is the point of getting one more large video file in a proprietary file format to add to the massive list of “to do” items that most municipal staffs already face on a day to day basis?

The wastewater industry has taken great strides in standardizing the inspection of sanitary sewer assets (manholes, pipelines, service laterals, etc.) through the efforts of organizations such as the National Association of Sewer Service Companies (NASSCO), Water Environment Federation (WEF), and the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE). NASSCO’s Manhole Assessment and Certification Program (MACP) provides a readymade template of the information required to properly assess the structural, maintenance and operating conditions of these assets. However, by overly minimizing the data collection efforts, in favor of producing sexy videos (is the interior of a manhole really that sexy?), many stakeholders, both contractors and utilities, are convinced that these products are the equivalent of the Staples “Easy Button”, when in fact they are not.

Dye in Manhole

Dye in Manhole

Professional Expertise is Still the Most Important Investment
To make use of this information still requires the intervention of trained, experienced operators and engineers to take these videos and produce actionable data from them. Instead of streamlining the process, as a properly performed MACP inspection does, these products often add an additional layer of human intervention and associated cost that is typically not disclosed until after the products are purchased and the video inspections are performed. All parties are at fault in this situation, whether it’s the companies producing these products not adequately explaining the full cost of implementation in producing this information, the contractors who purchase these products not fully understanding the effort and expertise required to produce the data, or the engineers or owners (purchasers these services), failing to ask the fairly straightforward question of “What information will I get, what format will it be in, where will the data reside and how do I use when I get it and ultimately how much is all of this going to really cost me?”

Tips on Purchasing New Technologies
As a purchaser, field services provider and end user of the data produced from these types of products, here’s a list of questions we often pose when assessing this type of equipment and software:
When purchasing equipment and/or software:

  1. What equipment and software is required to provide the information necessary to assess and provide a database of defects and structural measurements for use in designing a rehabilitation project?
  2. What is the full cost of the equipment?
  3. What is the full cost of the software? Is it proprietary and can it produce a database of information that can be integrated into my GIS or is it subscription based?
  4. How do I get the information from equipment and software and where will it reside and who owns it and what format will it be in?
  5. What skill sets will my operators need to have to operate this equipment and software? What training is provided and by whom? How much will this cost?
  6. What is the warranty of the equipment? Who provides warranty repairs and what is the typical turnaround time? Will the company provide a temporary unit while my equipment is being repaired? What other companies are using this equipment, can you provide references and contact information?
  7. What is the limitation of the equipment? Can it only be used in roads and streets due to the vehicle required or can easement or off road inspections be easily performed? Can it be operated during cold, wet or hot weather?

If purchasing inspection services from a third party:

  1. Who will perform the inspections and what is their experience level and what certifications do they hold?
  2. What are the limitations of the inspections, can only easily accessible manholes in road right of ways be inspected or can inspections in off road and easement areas be performed?
  3. What information or data will be obtained and in what format? Can the data and media files be exported to Microsoft Access, ESRI ArcGIS or other software platform we already own easily and without additional costs?
  4. How long will the inspections take and what is the turnaround time on the data deliverables?
  5. What quality control procedures are utilized by the company to ensure that the data is accurate?
  6. What is the unit rate cost per asset to produce the information we need?
  7. Will the company provide a demonstration of the inspection process and provide an example of the deliverable for us to review prior to entering into an agreement for services?
  8. After reviewing the inspection demo and deliverable, can we actually use the information provided to develop a rehabilitation design and what additional effort and cost is associated with this?
  9. Does this the ultimate benefit received justify the cost of this service or are there better alternatives out there?

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