How San Jose Water Uses Asset Management to Keep the Water Flowing

By Andy Yang

Numerous industries across the globe are beginning to recognize asset management as a critical and core function of their business operations. Some industries, such as those in oil and gas or nuclear, were early adopters of asset management due to the reliability and productivity it offers. But the water industry has yet to catch up. If clean water is the most precious resource on earth, shouldn’t water utilities also adopt the best asset management strategies and science to ensure safe, sustainable and reliable service?

The answer is, yes, of course. 

To begin, let’s focus on what asset management is. It isn’t just asset maintenance or renewal – it is far more encompassing. It is the framework upon which organizations align their various functions to optimize the balance between service levels, risk and cost. For a water utility, this can be understood as the framework for aligning capital investments, construction practices, operational strategy, maintenance practices, technology, data, IT systems, contracts and agreements, training and decision-making criteria. In a nutshell, all of this can culminate in the utility providing safe, reliable water service at the lowest cost possible, in perpetuity.

Sustaining the nation’s water infrastructure is an ongoing task. San Jose Water (SJW), based in San Jose, Calif., has heeded the call to seriously address asset management. Serving more than one million people in the greater San Jose metropolitan area, SJW operates one of the largest and most technically sophisticated urban water systems in the United States. The system consists of three water treatment plants along with approximately 2,400 miles of pipelines, 340 pumps and motors, 100 wells, 120 tanks and reservoirs, and hundreds of thousands of other assets such as valves, fire hydrants, meters, electrical systems and chemical systems. 

As a means to ensure water system reliability for its customers, SJW has embraced asset management and made tremendous progress — even being recognized as an asset management leader in the water industry. In 2019, SJW received an international award for the Best Reliability Engineering for Maintenance (Uptime Award by Reliabilityweb). SJW is also acting as an asset management leader both inside and outside the water industry — serving on national committees, presenting to the EPA, and leading multi-industry organizational local branches. Using machine learning techniques, condition monitoring sensors, sophisticated risk analyses, risk and sustainability forecasts, and maintenance optimization techniques, SJW is continually aligning its efforts and business processes toward reliability for customers. 

Asset Risk Evaluations

With the goal of minimizing risk to customers, SJW performs robust in-house asset risk analyses to determine asset Probability of Failure (PoF) and Consequence of Failure (CoF). For example, a machine-learning algorithm is used to determine pipeline PoF using various factors such as pipeline age, material, leak history, soil resistivity, seismic factors, and more, enabling SJW to schedule specific pipes for replacement before their predicted failure occurs. 

Robust pipeline CoF analyses are also performed, using data-intensive hydraulic modeling and spatial analyses to simulate over 100,000 pipeline breaks, valve failures, and service outage scenarios. This provides excellent visibility into the severity of potential customer impacts such as water outage duration, water pressure fluctuation, contamination potential, and the likelihood of flooding. Other calculations include the amount of water loss, the extent of environmental impact and harm to aquatic wildlife, and creek bank erosion. Perhaps most importantly, the degree of impact to critical facilities such as hospitals, health care facilities, schools, and public venues is also estimated. Similar evaluations are conducted on all key asset types including pumps, tanks, reservoirs, and more, which eventually translate into a risk-based asset replacement schedule. 

Condition monitoring technologies are also applied to high-risk assets. For example, vibration monitoring sensors are installed on pumps and motors to avoid unexpected failures of critical pumping equipment. Similarly, acoustic leak detection sensors are installed on high-risk pipes to identify small subsurface leaks which, if left unaddressed, would become catastrophic failures significantly impacting customers, communities and the environment.

Natural Disasters and Outside Threats

Natural disasters and outside threats such as earthquakes, hurricanes, pandemics, wildfires, power outages, and cyberattacks can severely impair the safe operations of utilities and even, sadly, lead to severe injuries or loss of life. The impact of climate change on utilities in Texas garnered national attention and demonstrated how susceptible power and energy systems can be to adverse weather. While water utilities may have little to no control over the occurrence of the threat, they have the responsibility to be prepared and limit their vulnerability.

With this in mind, SJW has taken a thorough asset management approach to evaluate the most significant threats against all critical assets. More than 850 threat-asset pairs were evaluated under a data-intensive effort, resulting in over 2,500 risk calculations that were prioritized and logged in a risk register. This systematic evaluation set the foundation for future risk mitigation through the implementation of capital projects; changes in operational procedures or maintenance practices; or revisions to agreements or contracts with outside agencies that would serve in critical capacities during large-scale emergencies.

Long-Term Sustainability Projections

Utilities cannot be near-sighted. Their current decisions and investments must enable long-term, sustainable success in delivering reliable service. Unfortunately, near-sightedness has been far too prevalent in the industry, with water utilities throughout the United States now up against waves of infrastructure failure in the coming years and decades. 

The American Society of Civil Engineers gave the nation’s water infrastructure a C- grade, owing to the deteriorating condition of assets nearing the end of their useful lives. In response, SJW has developed numerous asset management plans that not only evaluate the current condition of assets and immediate needs, but also include 100-year risk and capital investment forecasts to uncover future waves and dips in infrastructure investment needs. This type of visibility is invaluable. It not only sheds light on the long-term impact of near-term decisions, but also provides SJW with the opportunity to make incremental operational or financial adjustments to ensure long-term reliability.

Back to Your Water Service

How do you know if your water service is sustainable and reliable? And, how much should reliable water service cost? The beauty of asset management is that it is specifically designed to answer these fundamental questions. Instead of leaving these critical issues unanswered, water utilities must take a stand and commit to integrating asset management into the heart of their business operations.


Andy Yang, P.E., CRL, PMP, is director of asset management at San Jose Water Company. He is a licensed Professional Engineer, a Certified Reliability Leader, and holds a B.S. from U.C. Berkeley and an M.S. from Stanford University. He has led the development of SJW’s Asset Management Program and co-chairs multiple local chapters of professional asset management associations.

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