July 2007, Vol. 19, No.7

Small Communities

Know Your Assets

Standardized asset management lets the best technologies stand out

Mike Saunders

 Small communities that need to expand or upgrade their wastewater treatment systems should evaluate competing technologies to discover the lowest-cost, most sustainable options. Unfortunately, the outcomes of these analyses often depend more on the data chosen for analysis and the methods chosen to analyze them, and less on the relative merits of the technologies. Why? The still-lingering lure of “free money” — government grants and low-interest loans — influences current practices for collecting and categorizing cost data.

If communities realistically accounted for the true costs of their systems, the comparative analyses often would favor decentralized alternatives. For this reason, standardization of asset management protocols is the essential first step toward closing the gap between current wastewater infrastructure and future needs.

For standardized asset management, asset data should accurately define such parameters as asset life cycles, operations and maintenance cost trends, and renewal and replacement (R&R) costs. An analyst should be able to differentiate costs when different materials or design standards have been used. Yet often, accurate asset data are unavailable and not detailed enough to assist in the decision-making process.

In any community that is evaluating wastewater alternatives, planners and their consultants must adopt an analysis tool that uses accurate and substantiated asset data. Such a tool would adhere to five principles:

  • Make the nature of all data clear. If data used in the analysis is theoretical, every effort should be made to calibrate it against actual documented data. If actual data are collected and used in a model, it should be clear that they are representative of the technologies being considered. Data that have been skewed by unrepresentative geographic factors, poor operating protocols, poor construction standards, an unusual level of service, or the use of substandard materials should be identified and analyzed separately. Mixing good and flawed data will make the best analysis tool produce improper conclusions.
  • Include all costs. For example, every analysis should include the cost of both private and public infrastructure. Privately owned gravity sewer laterals commonly contribute large volumes of infiltration and inflow (I/I). These should not be excluded from an analysis because they are costly to construct, repair, or replace, and I/I contributes substantially to downstream collection problems and treatment costs. Likewise, all other processes affected by the project should be assessed. For example, when a collection technology is evaluated, its impact on the treatment facility — often overlooked — should be considered. Some collection technologies will reduce the impact and cost of I/I on conveyance and treatment system performance, hydraulic loading, and biosolids generation. To understand the true costs of various technologies, analysts should consult professionals who have successfully designed, installed, and operated systems using these technologies. Without such input, estimates of the costs of building, running, and maintaining systems using various technologies can be misleading and result in flawed decision-making.
  • Include realistic R&R costs. Much of the current national infrastructure funding deficit is attributable to expensive long-term R&R for which communities did not set aside money. Standardized asset management would clearly define life cycles of wastewater systems so that R&R costs can be identified more accurately and provided for in user charge justifications.
  • Understand the effects of scale and integration with existing infrastructure. The demographics of the community, the scale of the project, and the existing infrastructure must be considered when planning and implementing wastewater projects. Without proper consideration, these variables often cause systems to be unsustainable or unaffordable. Standardized asset management can help demonstrate variable costs relative to community size and the capacity of existing infrastructure.
  • Quantify risks. In addition to ecological and public health risks, there can be financial risks, operational risks, or both. Financial risks must be accounted for in determining capital outlays and borrowing needs. Operational risks include the potential impacts of wastewater spills and equipment failures. Centralized and decentralized systems may pose very different kinds of risks, and standardized asset management would allow the risks to be quantified and compared fairly.

The need for standardization was clearly outlined in the September–October 2006 issue of Underground Infrastructure Management by a group of authors, including Steve Allbee, project director of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s wastewater gap analysis activities. The authors, who include several engineering consultants, believe an ISO standard for asset management is essential. The authors invited anyone interested in helping to assist in formulating such a standard to contact Roger Byrne, international manager of the Asset Management Group at GHD (Sydney, New South Wales, Australia). He can be reached at roger.byrne@ghd.com.au.

Although an international standard is a worthy goal, consultants and communities shouldn’t wait to develop and use tools for standardized asset management: They should start right now. As small communities grow, they have the opportunity to lead the way in identifying and implementing sustainable wastewater treatment technologies by following the five principles described.

Free money is on the way out, and the disciplined lending practices of private financing organizations leave no room for subsidizing “big pipe” dreams, omitting critical life-cycle costs, or blurring the lines between accounting and engineering practices. A serious effort at asset management analysis will penetrate the cloudy thinking of the free money mentality and allow recognition of the best technologies for protecting the world’s water.

Mike Saunders is a national accounts leader at Orenco Systems Inc. (Sutherland, Ore.).

Mike Saunders is a national accounts leader at Orenco Systems Inc. (Sutherland, Ore.).