On 21 January 2020, Ross Waugh and Heather Himmelberger held another Ask-the-Experts webinar titled, “Infrastructure Asset Management – How to Start.” Inframanage.com presents the webinar topics through a series of blog posts.
Continuing their discussion on starting asset management, Heather brings up the question of whether or not small systems are able to start and do asset management.
So, I think with that we move on to our next subject that we’ve got a lot of questions about. And we’ve started touching on this a little bit.
Just questions around small systems and doing asset management and the idea of whether or not small systems can do this. Or whether this is just a big system issue.
To start with, yes, there is no size too small to do asset management. You can do it yourself. I use it all the time. I’m sure Ross does as well.
In our own personal lives, you know with assets that I own, like a house and a car. I’ve used it many times, you know that type of thinking.
So, let’s talk a little bit Ross about small systems and how asset management fits them.
Yes, and look, I think with a small system, the reality is, between the engineer or the administrator and the supervisor and maybe field crews, you know everything you need to know. It’s just perhaps you haven’t pulled it all together.
Small System Asset Management
And so that’s why the comments on the slide there is keeping it simple. And we’ve already talked about the inventory.
You know you can put together off the plans that people have and the information they have. In a small system, you can do that in a day, even half a day.
Get your simple inventory sorted
Just get the inventory. Get everybody in the room and just knot it out. If something is on the plan that has changed, the guys who are seeing it every week they’ll say, oh no, that’s not right, we changed it five years ago, or whatever.
Brainstorm your major issues
And then the other thing with the brainstorming of major issues, like different systems have different problems based on how they’ve been built or where their wells are or if they’ve got a tanker or several tanks or whatever it is. Sometimes the quality of the water or…
So, you can again put everybody in a room for a brief period. Hey, look what’s come up that’s concerning us.
And somebody would say, oh look here the main pump is just, it’s dodgy, and it does not work on that well. And you’ve got, okay well, or write down; the main pump needs some attention.
Or maybe you’ve got a tank, and you’ve got a pipe coming off the tank, that’s just getting old and starting to burst a bit, and you go well, ah yeah we’ve got this pipe just about at the end of its life off our main tank.
And it’s just, just the major issues, not the little stuff. I’ve got five service lines on 5th street that are leaking. That’s the small stuff. These are the major issues.
Maybe your major issue is your superintendent, who’s been on the place for 30 years and knows everything, he’s retiring next year. And a whole heap of information that’s in his head and all that experience is going to go.
And then maybe he’s going to retire into your area, so he’s still there as a resource if needed. But perhaps he’s going and live with his kids 20 states away, and that’s more of an issue.
So, the issues might not be just physical asset issues. They might be risks around people and the knowledge those people have.
Know your risks, “the phone call at night”
And then around the risks, this is the phone call at night, so you know this is the classic. If your phone went off at 2 a.m., you’re on the call for problems in the network, and your mind goes, oh boy, I wish, I hope it isn’t that. Because you know that’s just an unsolvable problem. That’s your major risk.
And I’ve tried this a few times for clients, and they always come up to be, oh yes, my tanks, it’s up in the air, and it’s on its stand, it’s got rust all over it, and we’re not sure and, if it fell over, I don’t know what we’d do.
Or it might be that a pump is very old, or it might be an important pipe is right at the end of its life or any other number of issues. So that’s a good test.
If I get the phone call at 2:00 in the morning, what would I really hope it’s nothing. And so the answer to that test is not I’ll turn my phone off at 10 o’clock because all that means is it’s there for you the morning. And it’s been running, whatever is happening has been happening for 12 hours at that point.
So again, that gives you real clarity on what’s your major risk because instinctively you know what they are.
You can go to a very structured process and produce sets of data. Still, generally between your engineer or your administrator and your supervisor and your field crews, a couple of hours in a room with the network will tell you what those are very quickly.
Then you can start, hey, what are you going to do about those? Do we need to intervene earlier or later?
Staff retention and replacement is going to be a big issue
Staff retention and replacement are going to be an issue, particularly for small systems.
Certainly in New Zealand and I think the case also in the US, the days of people starting work in a water network or a wastewater network, sewer network at 20 years old out of school or early out of university and staying there for the rest of their career are gone pretty much.
And so what are you going to do about replacing long term experience when it leaves? And maybe Heather, you’ve got some insights around that.
Yeah, I think that’s an issue we’ve seen a lot in different places, how do you get somebody to come, how do you keep them there? How do you train them? So that they are going to do what you want while they are there.
And the more remote and rural the system is sometimes the harder that is, and money is a big part of that because a very small utility can’t afford necessarily to pay a lot of money for an operator.
And one of the things to look to is your neighbors. How can you share an operator?
So that sometimes is a way to get you an answer if there’s three or four of you. Maybe not super close together but close enough that an operator can travel relatively easily between the systems. That’s a way to trying to get around that problem.
Because then if each of you puts a fourth of the salary in, the person can make a decent enough money to stay there, be trained, and help you. But you do not have to pay the full salary.
It can be very, very difficult for a small utility to really come up with enough money to get a qualified operator, retain them, keep them there.
You know in the past we’ve had lots of volunteers who have really stepped up and have been wonderful operators but it’s getting harder and harder to get those people who want to dedicate so much of their free time and their effort to the system and as we move into the model of paying for people, that’s going to be a much tougher thing if we can’t figure out how to pay them a reasonable amount of money to stay.
There’s a little bit of truth in it as well that. Yes, if somebody is going to stay in a district or a network or an area, they have to have a reason.
So, it’s thinking through what attracts people to this place and why they would stay. And I think everywhere, worldwide, people have that problem.