Is Your Water Loss Program Informing Your Asset Management Program?

| By Will Jernigan

I often get asked the question, “How do leaks inform the decision to repair or replace pipeline infrastructure?”

You may encounter this very question embedded in your asset management program. How does the break history factor into prioritization of line replacement in your asset management matrix and capital planning? I submit the notion that we as an industry are due a paradigm shift on this front.

It’s important to consider two principles when it comes to leakage. First, not all leakage can be identified via acoustic leak detection, so it is necessary to understand your leakage ‘profile’ before investing in leak detection. This can be accomplished via a leakage component analysis, which is part of determining the most cost-effective leakage strategy. Second, it is a common misconception that the pipes with the most breaks are necessarily at the end of their asset life and warrant replacement. In most systems in North America, excess and transient pressure conditions in the pipe network are an underlying cause for premature breaks, and steps can be taken to optimize pressure conditions and extend asset life that are far less expensive than rehab or replacement. If your asset management plan utilizes break frequency as a criterion for pipe replacement, chances are you’re replacing assets too early and overspending in the long run.

The relationship between water loss management and asset management is debated, all the way to the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). Within the ISO, it has even been hotly debated whether the working group to develop a global water loss standard should be housed under the Asset Management working group or be established as a standalone group. The Asset Management camp won out, by the way, with German efficiency. Debate settled! Good, let’s go get a beer now.

Back to reality. Let’s consider how these two management elements might be interdependent. For this context, humor me that ‘assets’ refer to the physical water supply, distribution and storage network, including the customer use measurement systems (metering system and by proxy, accounting/billing system). Of note, the physical network and aggregate customer metering system in many cases can constitute the bulk of a water utility’s assets. We will tap the accepted industry best-practice of ‘water loss’ referring to both physical loss (leakage) and apparent loss (uncaptured revenue). So, does the water loss management program inform the asset management program, or the other way around? As with many things in this life, the answer is a hybrid of both. But I propose that this relationship is naturally oriented in a particular direction.

All assets have to be replaced eventually, and the goal is to optimize this replacement — to not pull out pipes or meters that have useful remaining life while not leaving them in place to the point where failure costs are excessive or introduce unacceptable risks. While asset replacement yields reduction in water loss, that is not inherently the objective because that is the most expensive way to reduce water loss. Because the marginal production and delivery costs are relatively low in the United States, the business case for asset replacement is rarely, if ever, substantiated on water loss savings alone.

Water loss management, however, can inform the optimization of asset replacement in two ways. Ongoing monitoring activities such as a proactive meter testing program and a regular leak detection program can provide critical insight into the remaining useful life of the assets — replacing broad assumptions based on design life and better informing predictions of optimal replacement timing. More impactfully, a water loss management program can include intervention activities that prolong the useful life of the asset. A lesser example of this is proactively monitoring for and remedying smaller leaks before they grow into big (and sometimes catastrophic) breaks. The greatest example of this is optimizing pressure conditions in the network to eliminate destructive transients, and to modulate excessive pressures which can add years to pipe life. How much is five years of deferred main replacement worth in your capital program? How about 20 years?

Bottom line, let a proactive water loss management program inform and support optimization of your asset management program – to be efficient and effective. 

Will Jernigan, P.E. is a director with Cavanaugh and a nationally-recognized leader in water loss management and bioenergy. He is active with AWWA as a trustee with the Distribution & Plant Operations Division, vice chair of the AWWA Water Loss Control Committee, a principle contributing author on the M36 Manual for Water Loss Control, 4th Edition, and more. Jernigan has 16 years in the industry and was appointed in 2017 as the United States expert to an international task force for developing the ISO Water Loss Standards.

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