What Is in Your Little White Box?

I yearn for the day to arrive in late November at my church, year after year, when the 2-inch cube white cardboard boxes are handed out during worship by our senior pastor to our congregation of about 2,500.? Most in the congregation take these boxes home, fill them with money and return back to the church during the Christmas Eve services. This year, for example, we collected more than $60,000 this way and every penny was sent to Rwanda to help nourish the children and provide educational opportunities so they can acquire skills to improve their quality of life compared to their impoverished parents. I can relate to this every day. I grew up in somewhat similar situation, where my dad in Sri Lanka brought home less than $100 a whole year. Yet this taught me the discipline to manage our meager resources to become a civil engineer. And in turn, I inspired all four of my siblings to become engineers.

Given my training from the University of California at Berkeley, I decided to think outside the box, but this time the box isn?t white in color. My church had a leak of glycol into the ground for over 10 years in its central HVAC pipeline and the lowest bidder wanted more than $50,000 to empty the line, fix the leak by relining with epoxy and reloading with glycol. When the senior pastor asked me what I thought of this technical solution, my quick reaction was: ?It would be a crime to spend that kind of money. Let me have a day to get back to you.? The next morning, I found a company 20 miles from my church that was willing to clean and CCTV the line for $700 and tell me why it was leaking. A former client was also willing to donate a spot repair kit. My church fixed the leak and went on with its mission: serving those in need in our community and around the world.

The lesson at the end of the day is too often pipelines are designed, constructed, inspected and managed by those who are not sufficiently qualified, and no amount of money can meet our nation?s appetite for more infrastructure funding as long as we do not realize why pipes are failing. President Dwight Eisenhower felt building an interstate highway system would allow us to deploy our military efficiently throughout America to defend ourselves from enemies; thus, he wanted a highway network of the same quality as the German Autobahn. Yet for the hundreds of billions of dollars spent since 1956, we are left with something that is still inferior to the German highways.

One has to acknowledge the significant role shoddy engineering and construction played in our infrastructure crumbling. Sewers, waterlines, bridges and highways falling apart have so little to do with age but much to do with errors and omissions by engineers and contractors. We are the only nation in the world where we feel spending more money is the answer to all of our problems but never better management of our vast resources.

The example of the church shows what can happen with proper care and planning, compared to throwing money at the problem without trying to fully understand the situation. On a bigger scale, we need to take the same approach to all of our infrastructure, especially the buried water and sewer pipelines that have been neglected for so long.

What would be filling your little white box that you plan to hand back on Christmas Eve in 2010?

How about training our engineers far better, prequalifying contractors based on their credentials and track record, and? planning for future maintenance and replacement needs? If so, why wait till Christmas Eve to arrive?

Dr. Jey K. Jeyapalan is the owner of Civic Enterprises LLC, which offers training, consulting, market studies, failure investigation and expert testimony in underground infrastructure such as utilidors, pipelines, cables and penstocks. He is also the author of ?Advances in Underground Pipeline Design, Construction and Management.?

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