AWWA’s 2022 ACE Conference held a panel discussion on its Survey of the level of progress in the management of public service assets. The panel reported that despite its importance, only 5% of utilities have a formal asset management plan in place.
This finding came despite the AWWA’s recommendation that “utilities should adopt a proactive, sustainable and solutions-oriented approach to managing assets in support of the economic, social and environmental needs of the service area” .
Most utilities still have not implemented asset management
There are several reasons behind this 5% figure. Often, there is no legal asset management mandate in a jurisdiction. This can divert leadership to other priorities.
Internally, there may not be a designated champion in place to drive asset management. Organizations rarely focus on something new until someone in authority champions it and removes the barriers to its achievement.
Resources can also be a constraint. Governments continue to call on public services to do more with less. This applies to both funding and human resources.
There are ongoing labor disruptions across the economy. Many utility workers have struggled to operate systems while working remotely. Baby boomers are retiring, often taking decades of knowledge with them.
Technology has evolved rapidly and many utilities have not kept pace. Water utilities may have several generations of legacy applications in place, but these systems may not be well integrated. Expertise to get the most out of IT resources is limited.
These limitations are understandable. Even so, many state and local water authorities offer grant mechanisms to help local utilities overcome these obstacles. The AWWA is actively campaigning for more of these programs.
The reason for these subsidies is that inefficient asset management leads to unforeseen failures. Without quick access to accurate metering data, utility managers often fail to plan. Too often, this leads to reactive crisis management on avoidable issues.
Sacramento Suburban Water District (SSWD) updates its meter management plan
The Sacramento Suburban Water District (SSWD) is one of the most forward-thinking utilities I have ever encountered. They are a leader in asset management and are among the top 5% of utilities with a comprehensive asset management plan for their infrastructure. The overall benefits of the program have led management to focus on documenting its water meter management plan.
As with many utilities, several key SSWD staff plan to retire in the coming years. Senior management wants to mitigate the risk of leaving irreplaceable institutional knowledge.
Thus, the utility runs an aggressive program to document support requirements for industrial, commercial, and residential meters. The project is an opportunity to analyze current work processes and document those work flows to refine policies, procedures and guidelines.
The improved documentation will help with knowledge management within the team and make it easier to orient new staff. In the longer term, meter asset management will provide quick access to accurate information about water operations.
Better use of meter data allows the utility to assess meter maintenance costs. This will lead to formalized processes to ensure better planning of maintenance, repairs and replacements. For example, keeping better maintenance records will help the utility take full advantage of warranty coverage.
This improved blueprint for remembering decisions made to manage assets will also lead to better repair versus replacement decisions. It also enables efficiencies by choosing outsourced rather than in-house resources for field activities.
SSWD’s existing comprehensive asset management approach has given its team a unique perspective on the benefits of meter management documentation.
Although many water utilities approach asset management differently, those building a program from the ground up may find that starting with a focus on meters and expanding to other infrastructure in phases is a great point. departure.
Where to start
Most utilities do not have an asset management plan in place and may feel discouraged about developing one. Starting with a count-based project can bring a quick win.
Trying to plan organization-wide when the team is just getting started can lead to analysis paralysis. Senior management is looking for tangible results, without which they risk becoming skeptical. So starting somewhere is better than not starting at all. Meters are often the best starting point, even for a utility like SSWD that has an extensive plan in place but needs to start documenting it.
The AWWA recommends that utilities ask themselves these questions when beginning to plan an asset management initiative:
- What is the current state of my assets?
- What is my required level of service?
- What are my business risks?
- What are my best Operation and Maintenance (O&M) and Capital Improvement Plan (CIP) options?
- What is my best long-term financing strategy?
Asset Management Planning – The First Three Sentences
When a utility is ready to begin asset management planning, there are three key phases to get started
Understand the past, present and future of utility
Teams need to understand how the infrastructure has evolved. How and when were the assets acquired and installed? Teams should identify assets along with their location and condition. Also think about how the community plans to change and what assets will be needed to support those changes in the future.
Determine inventory to include in asset management
Not all assets are mission critical, and some may lend themselves better to management. It is at this stage that utilities can pilot areas, often starting with water meters.
They can also outline subsequent phases and priorities of inventory segments to add to the overall asset management plan. For example, they can start with industrial meters, then work towards commercial and finally residential customers.
Utilities should also identify what data to include in the inventory. What should be tracked as each type of asset matures? What scheduled maintenance will be required and when should it be scheduled? Remember that workload can be more important than years of operation when estimating component life.
Determine the tools needed
Utilities vary greatly in size and complexity, so a utility must choose the most effective asset management method for its organization.
In most cases, a dedicated computerized maintenance management system (CMMS) is required for effective asset management. Supporting this requires features such as real network modeling in two or three dimensions. This allows personnel to analyze the as-built infrastructure of the water distribution system.
Analysis and visualization tools help personnel assess the infrastructure environment and potential threats. Risk assessment becomes easier and crews can proactively avoid breakdowns.
Field workers often benefit from mobile access to these applications. This makes asset inspections more thorough and efficient and improves collaboration between field and office staff.
Better measurement means better management
Developing an asset management plan provides benefits to all stakeholders. Maintenance schedules are simplified and more efficient, improving water quality and customer service. Staff can take proactive steps to avoid unplanned emergency repairs and replacements. This ultimately reduces any potential disruption of services for customers.
Knowing the age, location and condition of utility assets, such as meters, is essential for accurate planning and budgeting. An asset management plan enables analysis and forecasting. Utility planners and financial analysts can predict repair and replacement needs with greater accuracy and plan accordingly.
Effective meter management is also important for water conservation. The systems allow staff to detect and prevent major leaks in the system, reducing waste in the growing number of communities with limited water resources.
Asset management systems can improve communications with customers. The instantaneous data provided by the systems helps customers and local managers understand rate changes. Communications staff can also use this data to educate customers about the benefits of the service, thereby raising a utility’s profile in the community.
Asset management plans provide quick access to specific actions that improve infrastructure management. This promotes more effective decision-making to guide the delivery of services to the communities that public services exist to serve. As with most projects, better measurement means better management.