Holistic water management & water infrastructure

With so much of our water infrastructure due for renewal over the next decade, success will come from insights into asset conditions, failure mechanisms, and a collaborative approach to solutions. This is why a holistic approach to water management will be crucial.

With so much of our water infrastructure due for renewal over the next decade, success will come from insights into asset conditions, failure mechanisms, and a collaborative approach to solutions. This is why a holistic approach to water management will be crucial.

Much has been made of the “infrastructure cliff” identified in Infrastructure Australia’s Australian Infrastructure Audit 2019. The report highlighted that Australia is reaching the end of its water assets’ expected service life. Thus the renewal cost could overwhelm water authorities and their ability to meet their customers’ expectations.

Since then, innovation and advancement have occurred rapidly in some parts of the sector. But it’s not always beneficial and often doesn’t solve the deeper problem.

“I’m quietly sceptical of some of the new products on the market and quite excited about others,” said Will Zillmann, National Product Manager from pipeline infrastructure company, Interflow.

“Companies will often bring new technologies to market seemingly without understanding the technical parameters around how they may need to perform. They’re sold into the market without understanding the benefits and risks.”

“For example, many newly marketed pipe-renewal technologies leave existing service connections in place rather than replacing them. Those connections are typically the same age as the host pipe.

“If you’re replacing or renewing only the host pipe, it’s probably not long before those connections fail, too. Compare that to our RediFlow technology. We renew all the connections simultaneously as we renew the pipes. It means you’re not returning to the same customer group two years down the track and giving them more grief.”

But what is the root cause? How does a water authority get to a stage where it can feel confident about avoiding the infrastructure cliff by planning a proactive series of renewals?

Let’s use asbestos cement pipes as a case study.

Asbestos cement: A blessing and a curse

“Different failure mechanisms require different treatments,” said Zillmann.

“Asbestos cement (AC) pipes generally have an average service life of 40 to 70 years. Given that the last AC pipe was put in the ground in 1986 in Australia, we’re coming into a period in which many of these assets will show significant signs of failure.”

There are many complications around the rehabilitation of AC pipes. Pipe-bursting AC water mains is no longer seen as an acceptable practice. It becomes more dangerous as soon as you run a bursting head through an AC pipe.

“You’re putting asbestos fibres into the ground around the hotspot. The industry no longer allows pipe bursting of asbestos cement,” said Zillmann.

“But if we dig it up and replace it, we’re taking asbestos from one location to another and increasing the amount of landfill with a hazardous product. We’re creating a problem for future generations.”

What’s the solution?

It’s the same for any pipe, according to Zillmann. It’s about developing a clear picture of the existing assets’ conditions and types. Then an authority can appreciate that they all have some form of value.

“As an industry, we don’t always look at things holistically,” Zillmann said. “We’re often driven by short-term budgets rather than matching budgets to solve the greater issues.”

“If a pipeline has had failures, we replace it. We see it as an isolated pipeline and attack the problem on a reactive basis. We don’t see that we’ve got this asset class installed in that area in the same period, so they’ll all be at risk of failure.”

A holistic approach to renewing a more extensive area reduces unit costs and improves the long-term customer experience. It also means water pressures can be dialled back up, if they have been reduced in the past, to protect the infrastructure or reduce leakage.

In the case of AC pipes, different trenched and trenchless techniques can be used to renew an entire service area. It depends on the specific site and asset conditions and the needs of water authorities and their customers.

Thorough knowledge of the condition of the entire water and pipe network allows excellent and effective decisions to be made around these processes.

What holistic water infrastructure management looks like

Scott Jordan-Legg, Segment Lead for Water at Interflow, pointed out that if water managers think more holistically about their renewal strategy in a suburb or service area, they could realise enormous efficiency gains.

“If we were developing a 20- or 30-year renewal program, we could look for optimisation and efficiency. It means that we are not simply responding to the here and now. Yes, we’d have to maintain some pipe, but we could also reline most of it and upsize some of the networks,” said Jordan-Legg.

“For example, if I know I’ve got 200 assets to manage in a service area, I might identify 160 that we could line. That means another 20 could be maintained, and the remaining 20 could be upsized. An approach like this would enable us to maintain service capacity within the network. We can also provide water managers with the economic benefits and efficiencies of an optimised renewal approach.”

Much of the expense of a contractor crew comes from mobilisation. Once the team is mobilised, adding several hundred metres of pipe for re-lining brings in economies of scale.

Scheduling work into larger, planned blocks rather than reacting after a failure also helps to increase customer, council and Department of Transport expectations. Works announced well in advance are much more acceptable than surprise disruptions.

The future of water management will be about collaboration

By collaborating with South East Water recently, Interflow was able to compress a potential 12-month project on Melbourne’s Chapel Street to six months or less by agreeing to an extended working window – from 7.30 am to 10 pm instead of 9.30 am to 3.30 pm.

“That’s another example of progressive water management. The more collaborative an authority and the affected stakeholders are with us about achieving the objectives, the greater the economic benefit all can realise. There is also disruption to be avoided,” said Jordan-Legg.

“If you bring us into the conversation around how you want to deliver service or how you want to be innovative while removing risk, we can help. If there are working groups developing solutions to challenges, bring in contractors who are industry experts. We will help solve the challenge.”

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