May 2009, Vol. 21, No.5

Problem Solvers

Growing Community Needs New Information System

Problem: Increased number of water and sewer connections could result in information overload at California utility.
Solution: Asset management system provides real-time operational cost data and a snapshot of how much time, material, and outside consulting is necessary to run each of the utility’s departments, programs, and systems.

Background
The Northstar Community Services District (NCSD; Truckee, Calif.) was formed in 1991 to provide governmental services to local residences. NCSD provides water treatment and distribution, sewer collection and conveyance, road maintenance and snow removal, fire protection, forest fuels maintenance, and recycling and solid waste collection services to the local community.

Since 2000 there has been an increase in residential development and an increase in the number and capacity of commercial operations in the Northstar community. This development will result in doubling the number of water and sewer connections serviced by NCSD in less than 15 years, according to Becky Stevens, principal of Virtual Marketing LLC (Colorado Springs, Colo.).

To meet this demand, the community’s development master plan incorporates construction of many large infrastructure projects, including sewer lift stations, a membrane filtration water treatment plant, water transmission lines and pump stations, wells, water storage tanks, and a fire station. NCSD will become the owner of these new infrastructure systems, because they tie into existing systems already owned and operated by the district, Stevens said. As NCSD becomes responsible for more infrastructure systems, it will have to process an increasing volume of incoming information.

Business as Usual
NCSD’s standard operation relied on hand-drafted construction plans; individual staff knowledge, recollections, and intuition; and incomplete legacy data stored in spreadsheets and notebooks, Stevens said. This business-style process could not handle the increased volume of data while maintaining a small staff and could not provide the necessary level of transparency or accessibility of data. In addition, much of NCSD’s institutional knowledge was held by its seasoned workers, who make up the majority of the utility’s work force and are expected to retire in the next 5 years.

“When I started at the district, information that was vital to the operation and safety of the district’s infrastructure existed only in the heads of our senior utility workers,” said NCSD utility operations manager, Matt Ryan.

The real costs of owning and operating individual assets and operating each department were hidden by these operating practices, Stevens said. The solution seemed to be an integrated asset management and accounting system to show the relationship between system operations and maintenance expenses and fees charged for services provided by each system.

“The relationship between our asset management and accounting applications needs to be seamless and direct if we are to fully leverage the investment and optimize the functionality across the organization,” said NCSD general manager, Mike Staudenmayer.

Looking for a Solution
In 2006, the position of information systems supervisor was created to lead technology efforts, said Ryen Tarbet, who now serves in this position. The district’s senior management was comfortable with finding a technology solution and began researching asset management systems.

The new operating system had to serve NCSD’s various departments and provide paperless tracking of labor, materials, and equipment expenses; forecast future capital replacement costs; make asset information transparent and readily available; schedule  maintenance of all assets and record all related activity; track all operational and maintenance expenses; evaluate asset condition and perform risk-of-failure analysis; and require minimal information technology resources to deploy and operate, Stevens said.

NCSD chose the VUEWorksTM system, which supplies real-time operational cost data for the entire district categorized by department, project, individual task, or activity.

The system “gives us the flexibility and information transparency we require,” Tarbet said. “We never had the ability to systematically do this level of tracking prior to acquiring [it].”

Because the system is Web-based, no new staff was needed to install and support the system, and there was no need to maintain multiple desktop installations. Tarbet explained. The application can be accessed anywhere, and NCSD crews can retrieve their work orders through mobile phones or wireless Internet connections, he added.

The system monitors the condition, performance, and cost information of NCSD infrastructure, enabling the management to devise the best capital improvement plans and operations and maintenance plans. The system also has been integrated with NCSD’s accounting system. Staff now can find useful life information of infrastructure, and track the labor and equipment used in the field across departments, as well as find the true cost to operate equipment across all departments.

“Our financial reporting, planning, and structure can all be grounded in actual figures, creating a high degree of transparency,” Staudenmayer said.

Field crews are able to increase data accuracy and content by immediately reporting errors, newly discovered assets, or assets that should be removed from the system. Planning decisions, such as maintenance or replacement requirements, can be made quickly and efficiently, Tarbet explained. The system also enables employees to see who worked on any pipe, tank, or pump, when they worked on it, what was wrong with it, and what special notes have been made about it. This helps ensure that the institutional knowledge of the older workers is not lost as they retire.

The system also enables the public to see where NCSD is spending money, where infrastructure needs to be replaced, and “how it ties into the overall water or sewer systems,” Tarbet said.

Big Savings Expected

The system has low upfront costs because is requires only one third-party software license to run the geographic information system portion of the application, Tarbet said. This also has long-term cost savings implications in areas including maintenance fees and IT support. “Life-cycle costs are extremely competitive,” Tarbet said.

The new system offers better cost tracking and reporting, which has increased NCSD’s productivity, Tarbet added. NCSD estimates a return on investment of 2.5% to 5% of the total operational costs across the entire district during the first year after implementation. This return comes from learning which assets pose a high risk of failure and the nature of this risk. Assets that pose a low risk during complete failure are moved down on the priority list for capital projects. 

In addition, leveraging the geographic information system component of the system allows phases of multiple capital projects to be combined. “A sewer line replacement project can dovetail with a road overlay project, and the district can take advantage of reduced mobilization fees for getting heavy equipment to the work site,” Tarbet said. At press time, Northstar had planned to have the new system fully deployed across all departments by midyear.

For more information, see www.northstarcsd.org or www.vueworks.com, or contact Ryen Tarbet at (530) 562-0747 or ryent@northstarcsd.org.


©2009 Water Environment Federation. All rights reserved.