The Trick to Managing Vertical Assets

And where the discovery begins...

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August 9, 2021 | David Totman

We get asked all the time; “Do you do vertical assets?”  I always respond with: “Of course we do, but what do you want to do with vertical assets?”  And that is where the discovery begins…

To quickly draw a picture about managing vertical assets, I usually refer to Babushka Dolls, aka Russian Stacking Dolls such as this:

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The imagery suggests there are multiple parts, and there is a relationship between these parts.  How these parts are managed varies amongst the persona or job title/function asking the question.

The conversation then leads to 3 topic areas:

  1. Definition
  2. Visualization
  3. Asset performance

Definition and visualization have some subtle differences depending upon the business focus of the inquiry, yet asset performance is probably the most misunderstood, especially if trying to apply linear asset mentality to vertical asset management principles.


According to the AWWA Asset Management Definitions Guidebook, a vertical asset is:

An Asset within a building or a facility is often comprised of multiple components, also known as an above-ground asset. In the context of the water industry, this typically refers to Assets within pump stations, treatment plants and may include other facilities, such as storage facilities.

As a global leader in hydraulic modeling, Innovyze interacts with pumps and above-ground storage facilities to supply water pressure, which is why I answer “Of course we do” to the original question.  Granted, the focus may be on managing total head loss across a linear pipe system, but we require vertical asset definition in our models.  Pump efficiency is a vital attribute configured in an Innovyze hydraulic model, yet a detailed analysis of motor RPMs and degradation effects of thermal overloads are often ignored from the viewpoint of a hydraulic modeler.

Acknowledging treatment plants with building structures, offices with humans, HVAC systems, or employee parking are typically beyond the scope for a hydraulic model, yet the nested relationships are very much a part of our asset performance and risk modeling.  Like the dolls, sequencing and containment or stacking order are essential in defining the asset hierarchy.  The largest outermost doll is the primary vertical asset, typically a treatment plant or pump/lift station, then the various treatment processes, then the equipment assembly, then the pump motor, and the cycle goes on.  These nested relationships are critical in calculating total risk for vertical assets.  From experience, I also tend to include assets with a significant number of moving parts in my definition and management principles of vertical assets.


A 3-D rendering immediately comes to mind when visualizing vertical assets, yet customers often lack the data to support a true 3-D scene.  There is also a difference between true 3-D objects vs. 2-D objects extruded into the third dimension.


It is all a function of the overall size or mass of the asset for the best visualization method.  It is effortless to render small 6" diameter pipes if you know the manhole or valve elevations and draw a cylinder from point A sloping up or down to point B.  We are finding more and more GIS databases having Z data to be able to do this.  When it comes to facilities such as treatment plants, we compound the structure's visualization challenge vs. the individual piping.  For the structure, nearly every CAD and GIS software can extend a building footprint up into the air from the ground if you know the height of the building.  I mentioned how easy it is to draw a “3D” horizontal pipe, but we need to know two (2) Z values and X, Y if skewed when a pipe goes vertical.  Here we very much turn to BIM for inside plant visualization with true 3-D objects.  With the integration of modern systems and business relationships such as the Autodesk and Esri Alliance, we quickly have true seamless workflows between CAD, GIS, BIM, and asset management systems.

For the building structure itself, there are very valid reasons to discretize a 2-story building into two (2) 2-D floors.  We find this in virtually every CMMS/EAM because humans navigate buildings via elevators, stairwells, and access ladders.  For example, it is very logical to describe the access to a pump in a maintenance work order to go to building A, floor 2, pad 3.  Maintenance workers typically don’t climb up and downpipes like panning and zooming in a BIM interface.  This distinction comes into play when defining asset hierarchies in a CMMS/EAM.  We are mindful of the human access methods. However, these should not override the asset relationships in vertical asset assemblies for asset performance.

Asset Performance

As mentioned initially, asset performance should be the primary conversation with vertical assets, especially when asked by someone with experience in underground pipe performance.  Linear assets with little to no moving parts buried underground tend to degrade in a natural decay curve based on their material composition.  The math behind asset performance of linear assets can be simplified as a multi-order polynomial that can be calibrated with known "failure" events.  Whether the decay is prolonged or accelerated depends upon in-situ conditions such as operating pressure, soil corrosivity, the presence of groundwater, or street vibrations.  Of course, more advanced mathematics exist with greater accuracy, yet more data is required to feed these equations.

For vertical assets, I must introduce the conceptual difference between accuracy/validity and precision/reliability.  This concept is commonly illustrated by hitting the bullseye of a target:

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Reliability is the process of consistency, yet it can be invalid, in this case, hitting the bullseye.  The calculator on our phone can reliably give us a very high-precision answer at the flick of a button, yet it could be completely wrong.  Conversely, we can have random shots that, with luck, one is accurate in hitting the bullseye.  The underlying theme in this is processed, which goes beyond just math.

Reliability Centered Maintenance (RCM) is going on its 5th decade.  The rigors of maintaining military craft brought us the sound principles of RCM.  As mentioned, reliability is a function of the asset maintenance process: 1) the administrative program that provides the policy, goals, and funding of said maintenance, 2) the human personnel with trained skills and tools to carry out the Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) of said maintenance, and 3) the science and mathematics used to monitor, inspect, and analyze the performance of the targeted asset.

Basic CMMS solutions may or may not have everything needed to configure the above requirements of RCM.  What most solutions should be capable of concerning asset performance is allocating the asset hierarchy mentioned throughout and visualized it with the Babushka Dolls.  The key to this containment structure allows the concept of the weakest link theory.  In a vertical asset hierarchy, failure of a minor component could cause complete failure of every asset above.  For example, a ball bearing assembly pre-maturely fails due to a manufacturing defect that causes the pump to seize, which brings the pump station down.  This relationship should also apply to calculating total risk for the pump station.  Total risk being the sum of the risk of every individual component rolled up into the highest order asset.

Today's maturity of asset performance theory owes its development to vertical assets.  Vertical asset configuration in plant maintenance is how we evolved from reactive to preventive to predictive, and now prescriptive maintenance methods and analysis.  Throw in the definition of assets vs. spare parts vs. consumables, serialized equipment, and boilerplate text, and now we are talking about supply chain, which is a whole different blog in the future…

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Tags: asset management, vertical assets, asset performance

About the Authors

David Totman

David Totman

VP of Asset Management


Having been a public servant for many years, David's passion for infrastructure is exemplified throughout his experience as the VP of Asset Management at Innovyze and advisory Past-President for the Utility Engineering & Surveying Institute in the ASCE. 

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