Maximizing the Benefits of Condition Assessment through a Programmatic Approach

Pipeline Condition Assessment

By Ahmad Habibian

The deteriorating state of the nation’s water infrastructure has resulted in premature failures, costly emergency repairs and negative publicity. Given the limited availability of resources, utilities are looking for cost-effective approaches which allow them to prioritize their assets in need of rehabilitation. With the adoption of asset management principles in recent years, there has been a renewed interest in performing condition assessment of aging infrastructure.

Traditionally, utilities have been procuring inspection and engineering services one project at a time. With this approach, the utility will not be able to take advantage of the economies of scale. This limitation can be overcome by adopting a long-term ongoing programmatic approach to condition assessment.

The single most important advantage of a programmatic approach is the opportunity to increase the cost efficiency of inspection and assessment activities — allowing precious and limited resources to be stretched further. Under this approach, the utility gets the opportunity to develop a motivated and dedicated in-house workforce committed to achieving success. With effective leadership, such a workforce can embark on developing and implementing long-range assessment plans, maintaining up-to-date standard operating procedures (SOPs), piloting new technologies and establishing successful partnerships with inspection and engineering service providers. Recognizing these advantages, utilities with a progressive vision have begun to embark on a programmatic approach to condition assessment.

Project vs. Program

A project is defined as an undertaking that has a scheduled beginning and end, and has a specific purpose, while a program is typically defined as an ongoing integrated set of activities to accomplish a broad objective. The project approach is therefore of limited scope and schedule, while a programmatic approach has a broad scope and is ongoing.

Overview of Programmatic Approach

A programmatic approach to condition assessment provides the following: 1) establishes a framework for prioritization of assets for inspection; 2) identifies, evaluates and selects inspection technologies; 3) develops analysis tools for interpreting the inspection data; and 4) uses the results to reprioritize CIPs and communicate funding needs. These four features are described in the following subsections.

1. Risk-based Prioritization
A risk-based approach to asset prioritization for inspection has gained popularity in recent years – and for good reasons. Utilities have a growing capital replacement need. These needs have to compete for limited funding. Risk-based approaches better define the replacement needs, and more importantly, the consequences of inaction. When coupled with condition assessment, risk-based capital prioritization helps agencies build a strong case for action.

Figure 1 – Risk matrix

Figure 1 – Risk matrix

The risk-based approach identifies high risk assets which are targeted for inspection. The first step in performing the risk analysis is the development of an inventory of the assets (e.g. water mains) and bundling them in meaningful groups (or cohorts), based on factors such as size, age, material and geographic location. It is recognized that risk is a function of likelihood of failure and consequence of failure. When likelihood or consequence increases, risk increases. In order to quantify the risk, a system should be developed to quantify the two components comprising the risk – the likelihood of failure and the consequence of failure.

Once the likelihood of failure and consequence of failure are quantified, a risk matrix is developed which becomes the primary tool for prioritization. The risk matrix identifies several zones ranging from high risk to low risk. The assets which fall in the high risk zone are given high priority for inspections. Taking this further, more advanced techniques are being used to separate and prioritize asset cohorts. Advanced risk matrices, probabilistic analyses, deterioration modeling and survival curves are additional layers used to underpin capital expenditure priorities with a strong analytical rationale. Once prioritization is complete, the agency is then ready to conduct a meaningful condition assessment program.

Figure 2 – Condition Assessment Technologies

Figure 2 – Condition Assessment Technologies

2. Inspection Technologies
Inspection technologies can be broadly divided into two categories: Indirect Methods, and Direct Methods as shown in Figure 2. Indirect methods are relatively inexpensive and provide insight into potential condition of the pipelines, but do not provide direct evidence of the condition of the pipeline. On the other hand, direct methods, while typically more costly, provides data that is acquired by direct observation and examination of pipe condition. A variety of technologies are available for each category as shown in Figure 3.

3. Data Analysis
The purpose of performing data analysis is to develop useful information that can be used to gain insight into the condition of the pipeline under consideration. As an example, the break and leak history can be analyzed to establish the break rate of various pipe cohorts (information). Further evaluation of the break data will provide the utility with the knowledge of worst and best performing cohorts.

Data analysis can be as simple as tabulating and graphing the data in an Excel spreadsheet or can be as complex as running Monte Carlo Simulations or use of proprietary software from providers of advanced inspection technologies such as broadband electromagnetic, magnetic flux, or remote field technology.

4. CIP Development
Another element of a condition assessment program is the development of long-term budgeting needs for replacement and/or rehabilitation. The same risk based prioritization considerations listed above for prioritizing inspections also are used to prioritize CIPs, which drives budgets and rates. A thorough, clearly communicated prioritization process provides utility managers the ability to take action. They are equipped to make tough choices on how to dampen out peak spending so utilities can effectively fund improvements, and to communicate need and impacts to other utility managers, Board/Council members, and the community.

Figure 3 – Direct Condition Assessment Technologies

Figure 3 – Direct Condition Assessment Technologies

Utilities often encounter a situation where they either need to: 1) increase spending to compensate for the lack of replacement/rehabilitation in the past or, 2) start to put in place measures to avoid rate shock when the large replacement burden comes due. A proactive funding plan can distribute the initial budgetary need over a period of time to dampen impacts, or create a reserve to prepare the agency for upcoming or unforeseen needs.

Advantages of a Programmatic Approach

The single most important advantage of a programmatic approach is the opportunity to increase the cost efficiency of inspection and assessment activities. This allows precious and limited funding resources to stretch further. Several factors will contribute to improved cost efficiency. Due to their larger size and ongoing nature, programs typically attract more qualified contractors, increase the competition and result in better pricing. Additionally, cost savings can be realized by standardizing contract documents, streamlining the permitting processes and traffic control plans, developing consistent community outreach approaches, consolidating multi-project bidding activities into one and by optimizing use of field personnel during inspection activities. The programmatic approach allows the utility to retain one or more inspection firms on the basis of IDIQ (Indefinite Delivery Indefinite Quantity) contracts. Such contracts can substantially shorten the inspection schedule.

Another advantage of a programmatic approach is the opportunity to perform pilot trials of various innovative technologies on a small scale before approving their use on a broader scale. Such trials not only validate the viability of the piloted technologies, but will also provide invaluable insights into how to improve them. Additionally, many new and innovative technologies are developed with an eye on saving costs. Hence, it is likely that the utility will reap financial rewards when implementing validated technologies on a larger scale.

Furthermore, a programmatic approach provides the flexibility to address the highest priority pipelines early on in the assessment process. The assessment of low priority pipelines can be postponed, which reduces near-term funding requirements. The approach also provides a framework to appropriately plan for funding requirements, which minimizes the variability of funding needs from year to year. The predictability and stability of funding requirements can help facilitate annual budget approvals by the utility board.

A programmatic approach also reduces risk for the utility by capturing and documenting any “Lessons Learned” and incorporating them into future inspection and assessment activities. An added advantage of incorporating “Lessons Learned” is the enhancement of the quality of the work performed and improvement in the quality of collected data. The institutional knowledge gained throughout the life of the program is captured and maintained through a programmatic approach, rather than being lost.

Limitations of a Programmatic Approach

A programmatic approach requires certain upfront and ongoing expenditure and may not be suitable for small utilities, particularly if their system is relatively new. For such utilities, there may not be a need for an ongoing program for condition assessment. They may be able to perform the condition assessment of their older mains under one project and subsequently address the deficiencies. As a rule of thumb, any utility which has 25 percent or more of its pipeline inventory older than 50 years will likely benefit from a programmatic approach to condition assessment.

Another drawback of a programmatic approach is the possibility of organizational inertia taking hold in the long run. As a program matures overtime, the program staff may be comfortable with established methods and become resistant to trying new and innovative approaches. Under such circumstances, a change in leadership of the program may be the only way to do course-correction and ensure the long-term success of the program.


Recognizing the advantages described in this paper, utilities with a progressive vision that embark on a more programmatic approach for pipeline rehabilitation have reaped rewards. It is time for all utilities contemplating pipeline rehabilitation to consider adopting the programmatic approach. The program can start on a smaller scale and grow over time as the utility gains experience in implementing this approach. Alternatively, utilities can seek the services of experienced and qualified engineering firms to assist them in setting up and jump starting their pipeline rehabilitation programs.

AAhmad Habibianhmad Habibian, Ph.D., P.E., FASCE, is the technical strategy leader for conveyance at CDM Smith. This article was developed from his paper, “Achieving Cost Efficiency through a Programmatic Approach to Condition Assessment,” presented at ASCE Pipelines, July 2016, in Kansas City, Mo.

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