GIS: Practical Applications for Public Utilities

Suzanne M. Zitzman, GISP, GIS Asset Management Services Division Leader, Maser Consulting P.A.
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Suzanne M. Zitzman, GISP, GIS Asset Management Services Division Leader, Maser Consulting P.A.

Suzanne M. Zitzman, GISP, GIS Asset Management Services Division Leader, Maser Consulting P.A.

Public infrastructures in many regions across the nation are nearing the 100-year mark. As cities and towns have grown during this time, so have infrastructures that provide critical services to customers. Many of these systems, such as water, sewer and electrical utilities are comprised of thousands of individual components. At some point, these assets need repair and these large systems may require shutting down sections of the system interrupting service to homes and businesses. The magnitude of repairing a water main break for example, may be too taxing on public works departments forcing municipalities to outsource which can become costly. All of this is a lot more difficult if all of these assets aren’t properly identified and inventoried. Historically, keeping tight control over the condition and maintenance of assets has been a problem for asset managers. Especially when they have traditionally used a paper system where asset records were tracked on paper in a filing cabinet. This doesn’t cut it when you really need that information in the field during an emergency. Implementing a Geographic Information System (GIS) can help.

Using a water distribution authority as a model, this system consists of water storage facilities, pipes and asset components. According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), there are over one million miles of water distribution piping networks throughout the U.S. that require daily maintenance and operational activities to keep them running properly. As water distribution systems age, their management becomes even more critical in order to maintain the delivery of clean water to homes, schools, hospitals, businesses and industrial facilities.

  The beauty of GIS is that it enables users to gather, manage and analyze many types of assets all through the convenience of one interactive framework  

Recently in New Jersey, the enactment of the NJ Water Quality Accountability Act (WQAA) has prompted the mandatory inventorying of water distribution assets, coupled with an asset management plan to track operation and maintenance of distribution systems throughout the state following American Water Works Association (AWWA) standards. This has resulted in the development of a replacement plan for assets that are past their life expectancy.

One of the main components of the WQAA mandates the verification of each asset’s location. This can be done using a Global Positioning System (GPS) which uses satellite positioning. While using GPS to locate your assets is the right tool for the job, it can still be a daunting task due to the sheer number of assets. On the other end of the plan is the inspection, maintenance, repair, and rehabilitation of the infrastructure. This is where GIS comes in. GIS is a customizable program that encompasses all your needs and can easily handle everything from data collection to storage. If you’re going to dedicate the immense amount of time it takes to GPS-locate all your assets, it would make sense to integrate GIS at the same time.

GIS can be applied to a multitude of public works settings and has become the go-to tool for managing assets, particularly for multi-component infrastructure authorities. The beauty of GIS is that it enables users to gather, manage and analyze many types of assets all through the convenience of one interactive framework. This interface can even be used in conjunction with a GPS. All of this information can be grouped in an electronic layer that provides authorities a 3D map that helps users visualize an entire system that is available instantaneously in the field on mobile devices and in the office over the web.

The end product is an interactive GIS base map that can be accessed easily from a computer or hand-held device because the information is stored on a web-server (cloud). Layers of information can be added to the map as an overlay to show information about the corresponding street system that might show the location of valves, fire hydrants, storm drains, outfalls, stop signs, etc. These overlays enable the user to see their assets as a whole or individually by type. Each asset has a drop-down box you can click on to reveal information about that asset such as model number, date installed, repaired, replaced, and inspected. Even service requests can be made on-the-fly from the field when using GIS. Plus, any number of characteristics can be customized into the program such as hydrant flushing programs etc.

While some water distribution system owners may be hesitant due to costs, grants and zero interest loans can make this an achievable goal. Utilizing Esri Software and web applications along with third party asset management programs such as VUEWorks Asset Management software will give system owners a powerful tool to help them maintain and plan for system updates throughout the life of their assets. When GIS is properly implemented, utilities should see a fairly quick return on their investment. The question is not if your organization will implement a GIS, it is “when will my organization implement GIS?”!

Because today’s GIS programs are web-based, it gives end-users the capability to store a large amount of data within a secure web server. This means that asset data can be accessed and updated in the field through hand-held devices with platforms such as Windows, IOS and Android. As the data is collected and/or edited, it is sent to a secure web server in real time for simultaneous use in the office. It also can be configured to enable staff to launch live service requests, manage, and report on the status of those work assignments directly from the field.

The beauty of a GIS-based asset management program is that not only will your program will be configured to your exact specifications, it puts system information literally at your fingertips. In the case of the WQAA, since information about your critical infrastructure is now being stored in the cloud, they require the adoption of a cyber security program to be integrated with any internet connected control system. Even if fire or flooding were to destroy original documents and computer files, having them stored in the web-based GIS server cloud would keep them safely intact while reducing or eliminating any down time. GIS programs are also a valuable tool because they offer design tools for the creation of construction documents and as-built plans.

Using GIS asset management solutions provides one access point for viewing, maintaining, and managing your assets. While the initial implementation of a GIS application takes a little leg work to set up, once it is up and running, it is well worth the investment to have the depth of detail regarding your assets and an improvement in your ability to manage them.

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