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Watercare proactively tackles massive pipe renewal program

Auckland’s water and wastewater company, Watercare, has turned to trenchless technologies to overcome many of the challenges of its pipe renewal programs.

The company’s asset upgrades and renewals department was assembled to roll out a series of programs focussed on upgrading Auckland’s ageing water and wastewater pipe infrastructure.

A new plan to get ahead

Suzanne Lucas joined Watercare as General Manager of its newly formed Assets Upgrades and Renewals team in January 2022. She spoke to Trenchless Australasia about the reason the team was formed and how the company has adjusted its approach to network renewals.

“Traditionally our pipe renewal work has been carried out on a reactive basis when the assets fail – our operations and maintenance staff do a huge amount of work in this space. But now, we’re focusing on proactive planned renewals as well as the reactive work. With more investment upfront in proactive targeted renewals, we’ll be able to provide more reliable service to our customers, and in time we should be spending less on reactive replacements.

“We’re just coming to the end of our first proactive watermain renewal program – a $20m targeted investment in parts of west and central Auckland – and are now looking to the next program of work,” Lucas says.

Lucas also indicates that the programs are increasing year on year as Watercare embraces a proactive approach to extending the life of its assets without having to do full replacements. 

Balancing priorities

As part of the construction delivery team, project manager Mark Chijindu’s role is to make sure these numerous projects that make up the renewal programs are delivered to standard, to cost and to schedule.

In 2020, he says, Watercare started to emphasise the proactive renewal in order to get ahead of potential failures of the system. The city has over 9000 km of water pipes, some of which are nearing the end of their design lives.

“We don’t wait for failure to happen on the network before we renew. We’ll have a program plan to make sure we renew proactively,” says Chijindu.

The company still has an efficient team who has responded to leaks and outages when and where they occur, and who have done so for years. “There will always be a need for reactive replacement,” Lucas says.

Upgrading the pipes beneath the streets of Auckland is not without its own unique challenges. A good portion of the projects required for the program involve accessing pipes that run beneath suburban footpaths.

“Most of our challenges have to do with impact on our customers, and also hitting other utility services,” says Chijindu. “Accuracy and efficiency, then, are of vital importance to the success of the projects,” he says.

The various projects have been designed and executed to minimise the impact on customers and communities. Trenchless technology – specifically horizontal directional drilling (HDD) – is perfect for the fast, accurate, low-impact execution of the works.

“Trenchless technology is really helping us in terms of saving us from carrying out excavation operations, and closing footpaths. With these technologies we can just open two or three holes and reduce the impact on customers and pedestrians,” Chijindu says. “It’s also safer for the crews doing the work – and for the communities we’re working in,” he says.

Futureproofing

Longevity and innovation are also a major focus of the program. Getting ahead of leaks and water pipe breakages is even more vital as Auckland remembers the record-breaking drought that occurred only two years ago. In 2020, Aucklanders experienced water restrictions for the first time in 25 years as dam levels dwindled. 

Water preservation is important, but so is minimising community disruption and environmental impact. For this reason, Watercare is adopting a ‘dig once’ approach which involves actively seeking opportunities to coordinate with other projects in the area.

“We do look at technology as often as we can to make sure that we are using the most efficient means to deliver the projects. It’s exciting to challenge the traditional methods of how we used to replace assets,” says Lucas. 

“On the water side of things, the whole benefit is to reduce leaks, to improve our resilience to our critical customers, and to reduce community and customer supply disruption,” says Chijindu. “While on the wastewater side, it has to do with our reducing risk of pipe failures, reducing groundwater infiltration, and improving the network benefit.”

Watercare has developed a number of criteria, prioritising certain sections of water and wastewater infrastructure by looking at age, recent failures and material type to determine what sections to renew for the greatest net benefit.

Investing in pipes and people

The most recent program is on track to be finished in October, but that will not be the end of Watercare’s upgrade efforts. The company is secure in the investments required to roll out multiple upgrade programs over the next decade – resulting in further value from the efficient use of HDD to get individual projects completed.

The benefits of Watercare’s approach to water asset renewal and repair are many. Not only does it reduce the risk of failures throughout the system in the future, but it also creates a stable, reliable, ongoing work program.

“It reduces downtime for our contractors and our customers,” says Lucas. “I’m not sure we’ve done a lot of that proactive planning of renewals in the past, so to have that call out role now is exciting and it’s a great outcome, I think, for the community. If we get year on year programs, we can invest in the right people to deliver those. We get consistency, and they can invest in the right technology, they can make the investments they need to deliver well. So absolutely the plan is to have year on year programs, which just continue to roll,” Lucas says.

The renewal program is part of Watercare’s long-term asset management plan which is projected over the next 20 years. Lucas and her team oversee programs over a 10-year period at a time within that projection.

With the proactive renewals strategy set to continue, multi-year renewal programs will allow contractors to develop specialist teams.

“That’s where you get value, right? With being able to provide security to those contractors and the technologies they need to deliver,” Lucas says.

In the long run, the programs will result in better health and safety outcomes, more efficient projects, and higher quality work.

For more information, visit Watercare’s website.

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This article appeared in the October edition of Trenchless Australasia. Access the digital copy of the magazine here.

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