Wisely and efficiently managing investments in assets is a major issue even for small utilities. The U. S. Environmental Protection Agency has estimated that there is a need for $276.8 billion in improvements in drinking water infrastructure and $202.5 billion in improvements in wastewater infrastructure in the United States over the next 20 years (based on reports from 2005 and 2008 respectively). This is in addition to the cost of operation and maintenance. The smaller the community, the greater the per capita cost.
Asset management is a program for inventorying, evaluating and planning for assets so that utilities can make more effective and efficient choices in how to invest in their infrastructure. This can be a daunting task because asset management can be a data intensive activity and even a small utility can have many assets. Utilities don't need to delay, but can use these tips to begin using asset management.
Implement Asset Management in Phases
Part of asset management is to inventory assets and assess their conditions. It is increasingly common to link databases of asset and condition information to geographic information systems (GIS). A utility can spend years assembling this data, but if it isn't using that data to make more informed decisions and plan its infrastructure investments, it's not practicing asset management.
It is better to apply asset management in its entirety to a manageable subset of assets and add to it over time. In this way you can begin experiencing the benefits of it and gain practice for larger asset sets.
Begin with high priority assets. You may choose groups of assets based on type, location, age or other factors important to your utility. A typical place to start in a drinking water system may be storage tanks. In a wastewater system, you might start with pump stations. From there you can add pipes, treatment, sources and other assets one group at a time.
Start with General Information and Add Details as Needed
Information technology has made it possible to keep track of a lot of information about your assets. Collecting, coding and entering that data can be very time consuming.
You can simplify this by choosing to start with general information about your assets. Begin with information that will allow you to identify particular assets and prioritize them for possible inspection, refurbishment or replacement.
You can add more details over time. As you decide what details to add, consider whether they will help you make better decision about where to invest your effort and funds. If information won't factor into decision-making, don't waste your effort by collecting and tracking it.
Look at the Information You Already Have
Identifying, locating and assessing the condition of all a utilities major assets can seem like an overwhelming task. Fortunately, you probably have a lot of useful information already.
Utilities are engineered systems, and engineering reports, plans and specifications in your files can tell you a lot about your system as it was built. The engineers who prepared these documents may be able to supply you with electronic plans you may be able to put into a GIS.
Utilities are also regulated by utility, environmental and health agencies. State agencies may have a wealth of information on your utility and its assets, and it may be available in electronic formats. These agencies make periodic inspections of facilities that may include conditions assessments.
Remember that as you begin your asset management program, you're not starting from scratch. You are likely to have a lot of information about your assets and their condition at hand.
Utilities are face with enormous needs for infrastructure improvement and pressure to keep rates for their services affordable. Asset management can help you deal with this pressure by improving and justifying your decisions about infrastructure investments. Starting an asset management program can seem like a huge task, especially in light of all the data that can go into it, but you can start sooner rather than later by starting small and building from there.
Keenan Patterson is the manager of Infra Consulting LC, the Not-So-Small Systems Consultant. He helps “small" drinking water and wastewater utilities solve problems related to managing infrastructure and organizations in times of increasing and diverse demands.