How not to get caught 100 ft down in a sewer with a wild deer

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January 3, 2020 | Geoff Roberts

How do you feel about making decisions at work? Do you feel good about the data you have, and the information you get from it to help you make decisions and be confident about the outcomes?

We at Innovyze have a strong desire to develop the best modeling tools, to be able to digitally twin the real world and to assist our customers to make more informed decisions prioritizing investments and the operation and maintenance of their collection systems. To deliver on their goals our customers need information, not data – because information drives actions.

Beware of friends bearing gifts. A friend asked me to help him complete the sale of an environmental services business that he owned. “It should only take 4-6 weeks and we’ll be done…” Famous last words. During those next four years working in the underbelly of the water world, as I ran crews throughout North America and the Caribbean, I got to see first-hand the inside of a wide variety of collection, wastewater treatment plant (WWTP) and stormwater systems. As the equivalent of Capacity, Management, Operations and Maintenance (CMOM) first responders, we got called usually because there was a major operating problem and sometimes because there was a routine preventative maintenance job to do.

Lessons from electric utilities

My career began working for an electric utility, designing distribution systems and in the field running crews or in a power plant. Even as a young engineer around 35 years ago, I was used to being able to access detailed load and flow data for almost any moment in time. Our product moved at the speed of light, so we needed to manage the system with that type of mindset from the beginning. Field crews had access to this information before they showed up at the work site. We had to rely on information and technology that could make decisions faster than a human to maintain operational reliability.

When I later worked with water utilities I was surprised by how few had access to data more granular than hourly or in some cases daily flows. Sometimes the data existed in more granular detail, but no one had ever asked for it or knew where to find it. Data in the wrong place and not accessible.

When you don't even know where the system is

If you wonder about how much opportunity is in front of water utilities, take a moment to consider the basics I saw - how frequently utilities didn’t even know where their system was located, let alone its condition underground. The utilities may have had data and individual pockets of knowledge, but the silos and cultural and organizational barriers between the engineering planners and the operators prevented anything beyond minimal sharing of data. In many utilities, the engineers were considered a 4-letter word by the operators and the operators were thought of as whiners (or wingers) by the engineers. Some realities include:

  • Manholes lost under buildings or in the middle of highways or even under the pitcher’s mound in a college baseball field. Manholes designed with offsets or long reaches between manholes that prevented access for cleaning. Customer connections existed that were never mapped. Unmapped outfalls. Brick lined collection systems that had never been cleaned or repaired since they were installed in the 1940s or before (“…I guess those bricks we’ve been pulling out at the plant had to come from somewhere…”). Imagine designing an audible alarm system for unplanned overflows at an unmanned WWTP where the utility had to rely on the kindness of neighbors to make the call to notify the utility if the neighbor happened to hear the alarm.
    photo of sewer with collapsed stone lining
  • There are often vast troves of data from expensive CCTV studies and sonar assessments that are gathering dust on shelves and backrooms of utilities – if they can be found at all. I found one collection of old sonar and CCTV reports stacked next to an abandoned lawnmower in a warehouse that reminded me of the final scene of Raiders of the Lost Ark – this massive warehouse where intriguing discoveries get filed and then are lost forever. It’s very expensive data that routinely fails to ever help manage their system.
  • We know that the stormwater and wastewater systems continually collect debris - sand, grit and gravel and other settled solids that must be periodically cleaned out to restore operational capacity. We eagerly digest the news when we hear about the infamous fatbergs and barely shrug when we hear about sharps (needles), chemicals, the occasional wallet or discovery of a lost wedding ring. Routine maintenance is never exciting news. It’s easier and more adrenaline producing to respond to an emergency and put out the operational fire than to manage the system to prevent the fire in the first place.
  • The reality that I also discovered in my journeys underground is the legacy of operational problems that continue to haunt systems after the problem is “fixed” is astounding. Collapsed lines upstream of siphons that hadn’t worked right in years that had been emergency repaired, but never cleaned-out during the repair. The result is that we found the line to be filled with Volkswagen sized rocks (it is no fun to jackhammer rocks, in flow conditions inside of 60” line to break them into small enough pieces for removal). Rivers of grout used in Nashville to repair a problem in one area that found its way into filling other laterals (…that explains why we used 6 truckloads of grout instead of just 1…). In Atlanta we found a 24” diameter tree trunk that was 30 ft long clogging a 500 ft straight section between two 90-degree bends in a 15-year old 48” lateral. In Puerto Rico we found a 4 mile, 48” and 60” mainline that was > 75% plugged with sand and an unusually large and unique collection of used car parts, including tires, seats and bumpers resulting in routine discharges of untreated wastewater into the bay and unhappy neighbors. In California we cleaned out lines that had < 5% debris in them in advance of an un-needed relining project. Meanwhile the utility ignored nearby lines choked with debris and damaged pipelines that routinely created overflows that desperately needed cleaning and relining. Operators in the field knew about or suspected these problems but lacked the tools to confirm them while the decision makers seldom had access to actionable information.

Wasted capital and fixing symptoms

What are the common themes? Wasted capital. Maintenance issues that only fixed a symptom instead of the root cause or only fixed a portion of the problem. These are the obvious themes. In my view the themes can be boiled down to one. Data. Data can be from an ignored expert in the field, from observational reality that failed to meet expectations and wasn’t communicated or analyzed, or from sonar reports lost in the warehouse. Data doesn’t move companies or contribute to making informed decisions. Data is just like the debris that fill up and clog collection systems. It degrades the system and slows the flow. It causes problems upstream and downstream. It leads to the wrong decisions.

Information is data made actionable. Innovyze provides sophisticated solutions that bring actionable information to our customers. We provide tools to water experts to help them make informed decisions. There is no other provider that offers the comprehensive suite of solutions that Innovyze provides. Asset management and sophisticated data analytical tools, built on a foundation of deep technical insight of water systems, provide the types of informational driven solutions needed by our customers to make informed decisions. The enhanced toolkit brought by Emagin expands this capability and uniquely positions Innovyze with unmatched capabilities for the future.

Caught in headlights

I had just climbed down 100 feet from the surface on a wet, slippery ladder in the pitch black dark except for my headlamp into a deep well offset from a major interconnector in New York to find a 12 ft diameter trunk line 50% plugged with a near concrete-like blanket of debris stretching as far as I could see in both directions with my headlamp and flashlight. In response to a noise I turned and was confronted by a full-grown wild buck deer. He had no-where to run. Neither did and I realized that I was 100 ft down from the open air I now craved. He wanted to be somewhere else. I sensed that “someplace” was through me. I backed to the wall and lowered my head expecting the inevitable. I heard him breathing as he ran past me and realized that I now knew what it felt like to be a deer in headlights. I wish that I had the information about the presence of wildlife in the interconnector before I went underground…

If you feel daunted by gathering data , then getting useful information from it, call us. It's what we do for thousands of water and wastewater organizations and consultancies all over the world.

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Tags: data, decision making, digital twin, sewer, modeling

About the Authors

Geoff Roberts

Geoff Roberts



Geoff Roberts is Chairman of the Board at Innovyze. He has worked in the energy, environmental and utility industry throughout his career. He brings a diverse background of experience from the management and executive levels in the commercial, technical and operational areas of the energy and environmental industries spanning more than 35 years. His experiences range from asset management, asset development, O&M and M&A to energy trading and origination. His career involved working for leading energy companies both domestically and internationally, including NextEra Energy (FKA Florida Power & Light), Shell Oil, Enron and Entergy. With EQT, he has served on the Boards of Innovyze, Synagro Technologies, Midland Cogeneration Ventures, Restaurant Technologies, Peregrine Midstream partners and Contanda Terminals. Outside of EQT he has served on the boards of Entegra Power Group and Primus Green Energy. He has a Master’s of Business Administration from Florida Atlantic University and a Bachelor of Science degree in Civil Engineering from the University of Miami, and is a Class A licensed wastewater Treatment Plant Operator in the State of Texas.