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All Mapped Out: Improving Your Tools for Managing Underground Infrastructure

Keeping water systems in current condition
University Business, Oct 2010

Colleges and universities rely on their buried infrastructure, including water, wastewater, and stormwater systems, to keep campus life running smoothly. Unfortunately, many institutions have patchwork systems of underground infrastructure, for which they lack accurate maps and often require more detailed information on the condition of these critical assets.

As a result, many campuses have little choice but to adopt a "management by crisis" approach, reacting to emergencies rather than having the ability to proactively upgrading and maintaining systems. This approach makes it extremely difficult to budget for maintenance, plan for campus expansion, and respond quickly to emergencies such as a broken water or sewer line or flooding stormwater drains.

The University at Albany, State University of New York was a typical example, having historically relied on utility maps for water, wastewater, and stormwater infrastructure that in many cases were not kept up to date.

As John Baldwin, staff engineer and project coordinator for UAlbany, explains, "On our campus, which is almost 45 years old, we relied on a lot of original design documents and we often didn't even have the as-built drawings. Plus, there have been many additions and changes to the campus. We were looking for our mapping to be updated, to do capacity assessment and condition assessment of our infrastructure, and create an asset management plan to help plan future projects."

This project would help UAlbany better manage its underground assets, improve its ability to budget for routine operations and maintenance, enhance its planning for campus expansion and improvements, and bolster its ability to respond to campus emergencies.

Working with consultant Woodard & Curran, and with funding from the New York State University Construction Fund, UAlbany used a global positioning system, a geographic information system, and other technologies to pinpoint the location of its infrastructure and create an expandable web-based tool that allows quick access to maps, condition information, and other relevant data and documentation. This approach, applicable to any campus with substantial underground utility infrastructure, allowed campus managers to get out of the "management by crisis" cycle and get ahead of potential problems.

At the outset of the project, a web-based geographic information system (WebGIS) was set up. The WebGIS consists of a database that stores geo-spatial information such as the location of various infrastructure elements, including water and sewer mains, stormwater drains and outfalls, and irrigation piping. The WebGIS allows this information to be displayed on topographical maps and aerial photography, and is accessed through a web-browser using a secure password system.

"When we were planning the project, we weren't thinking of using a GIS," says Baldwin. "We asked for digital maps, and probably would have ended up using those and printing copies. The GIS was suggested to the State Construction Fund by Woodard & Curran and it seemed like a better option."

With the WebGIS in place, a crew was sent out to pinpoint the precise location of the assets to be inventoried. Using hand-held global position system units and tablet PCs, the crew located assets and entered the position using a custom data-collection form on the tablet PC. The data was then uploaded directly to the WebGIS. This process yields much more accurate results than using paper forms, which increase the risk of transcription errors and require every piece of data to be recorded twice.

This project would help UAlbany better manage its underground assets.

In conjunction with the collection of location data, an extensive condition assessment program was undertaken. The project team used a combination of in-person visual and closed-circuit TV inspections to look for potential problems in various infrastructure elements, such as manholes, water and sewer mains, and stormwater conveyances.

The notes, photographs, and video collected through this effort were uploaded to the GIS as well, and linked to the location of each asset inspected. This information allowed UAlbany and project managers on the team to track progress and identify potentially critical issues as they were discovered, and formed the basis for a capital asset management plan to guide budgeting, maintenance, and upgrade decisions in the future.

The primary challenges in completing the inventory and assessment work were timing and scheduling related. The work was planned for the summer in order to reduce potential conflicts with campus operations, but summer is still a busy time for UAlbany. For example, during a portion of the site work, the New York Giants were on campus for pre-season practice, so crews had to be able to work around fans and media who were there to watch the team.

"Overall, the project went about as we expected," says Baldwin. "We had to put off the aerial photography, which would ideally have taken place before the inventory work, but in the end it all came together."

The WebGIS is both a powerful mapping tool and a central location to store campus infrastructure data. Each type of infrastructure is represented on a "layer," allowing the UAlbany to generate custom maps of any section of campus showing any combination of mapped infrastructure.

The WebGIS interface also gives users access to the initial condition assessments, as well as ongoing maintenance and repair records, related invoices, and other information or documents related to underground infrastructure. If an emergency such as a water line break should arise, campus managers can pull up a map of the infrastructure involved simply by logging on to the secure website with an assigned password. All available information on that piece of infrastructure's capacity, condition, and recent maintenance history is right at their fingertips.

"Early on with the new system we had some wet weather," says Baldwin. "Our plant director told me that he was on the phone with the grounds director during a storm, and actually directed him to a catch basin by looking at the WebGIS. I also know that the maintenance staff has used the system to put together a catch basin clean-out program and to plan for root cutting work in some of our sewer lines."

One of the key concerns when launching a new tool is the learning curve. Getting staff the appropriate training so they can take advantage of the tool is crucial. Fortunately, in the case of UAlbany's WebGIS, the learning curve is not steep. Staff was already accustomed to working with a wide range of software and web resources, so becoming familiar with the capabilities of the WebGIS required only some basic orientation and a few hours to get comfortable with the interface.

Because the WebGIS is built on a database that UAlbany can maintain in-house, they have the ability to update maps to include campus expansions or changes in infrastructure as needed. As Baldwin explains, "As we complete more of our big projects, and some utilities really get updated, we will have opportunities to pick up where we left off and keep the GIS updated."

The new system does not make all projects a breeze. "I always suspect any kind of map might not be accurate," says Baldwin. "Even working from as-built drawings you need to dig slowly and dig carefully. We're still cautious any time we dig on campus."

Any campus with significant underground infrastructure can be forced into "management by crisis" without reliable and accurate information on the location and condition of that infrastructure.

Making critical repairs and upgrades only when there is an emergency, scrambling to update plans and maps when something goes wrong, falling behind on maintenance, and struggling to plan for campus expansions are all symptoms of management by crisis.

Anthony Catalano, PE, BCEE, is senior vice president at Woodard & Curran in White Plains, N.Y. He is a civil and environmental engineer with more than 19 years of experience in helping public and private sector clients address their infrastructure needs.

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