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Pipeline management: old pipe is not always bad pipe

Underground pipelines are among the most valuable, yet neglected assets in the public arena. They provide essential services such as the supply of drinking water and collection of wastewater.

Despite their critical importance, for decades many municipal utilities have operated under a “bury and forget” mentality – with little emphasis on long-term management of their aging pipelines – at least until something goes wrong. Then they must fix the problem under emergency conditions, often considering only immediate needs and not the future operation of the pipeline in question.

Rocks balanced over a plank of wood

North American utilities face a tipping point

In many cases, the issue has less to do with “bury and forget” and more to do with financial constraints. Regardless, after years of funding deficiencies in pipeline network management, the situation facing North American utilities is at a tipping point.

Over time, it has become clear that most of the installed buried infrastructure – estimated to be approximately two-thirds of a utility’s total value according the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) – will require strategic management to continue providing the expected level of service with acceptable budget constraints.

“Managing pipelines isn’t always about replacing old infrastructure,”

Travis Wagner

Vice President of the Pipeline Management Group, Pure Technologies.

Desktop indicators vs true condition assessment

In an interview with Water Online Radio, Wagner explained, “Just because a pipe is old, doesn’t mean it’s bad. The EPA came out with asset management information stating that 70 to 90 percent of the pipes that utilities pull out of the ground still have life in them. Utilities often base their decisions on desktop indicators like age and break history that tell them to replace out more pipe than is necessary.”

While desktop studies can help identify generalized likelihood and consequence of failure factors, condition assessment data has been particularly difficult to collect, especially in pressurized pipeline systems. This assessment information is critical, especially for estimating the remaining life in a pipe, or in making decisions on whether to initiate a replacement or repair program.

“I’ve seen hundred-year old pipe that looks as good as the day it was put in the ground and I’ve seen 15-year old pipe that was Swiss cheese,” said Wagner. “It’s all dependant on site conditions, how it was installed, all kinds of different elements that can cause a pipe to deteriorate and fail.”

Along with the sweeping digital revolution, the focus on maintaining buried infrastructure has come to involve robust data collection and management. To narrow down the root cause of pipeline failures, a comprehensive knowledge of the pipeline has become essential.

“We need to think better, smarter and put the right tools in the right place to get the information we need,” said Wagner. “Think about it in terms of your house or car. You put a little investment in now and it’s going to last years and years longer than it would otherwise. We need to be thinking of our pipes in the same manner.  Age discrimination has no place in pipe replacement strategies.

To help water utilities defensively address their pipeline conditions, Pure Technologies provides a suite of tools, technologies and engineering services that allow for a comprehensive condition assessment of pipelines, of all material types.

Matching the level of resolution to the risk of the line

While a variety of technological approaches are available for assessing a pipeline’s condition, much of the effort must go into matching the level of resolution of the approach to the overall risk of the line. The idea is to put the highest resolution technologies on the most critical lines.

Worker's hands operating an electrical tester

In the end, the goal of deploying a particular technology (or complementary technologies) is to identify and locate the areas that need rehabilitation or repair as opposed to wholesale replacement of those lines. Armed with the right information, operators can determine remaining useful life, and confidently move forward to prioritize and target capital spending, while avoiding failures.

As Wagner summed up, “Knowledge is power. The more data you can collect, the more you can make confident decisions. But you’ve got to be able to manage, process, and analyze that data.”

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