Early in my career, I worked on a wide variety of projects, including those involving design and master planning. I enjoyed the detailed design work, seeing my work transform into real-life facilities. When asked by my supervisor ‘what type of work I’d like to focus on,’ without hesitation, I replied ‘wastewater treatment design.’ I wasn’t interested in studies. I wanted to focus on tangible projects that directly benefit public health and the environment. Something I could point to and show off to my friends and family as my project. Fast-forward five years, and I’m now a utility planning project manager, focusing primarily on master planning. I’ve never been happier. So what changed along the way?
As my career progressed, my involvement in detailed design decreased, while my concern for schedule and budget increased. Despite our best efforts, even straightforward design projects would run into roadblocks. For example, when designing a new process we would find:
- Upstream and downstream equipment needed to be replaced
- Feed pumps were at the end of their useful lives
- Connective piping was too small or too corroded to be reused
- The process needed to be 50 percent larger than originally proposed because the plant capacity would need to expand soon
- The original site location was no longer viable because it was now the location for a new lab
Working through these types of issues, it became increasingly clear to me that we needed to take a step back and come up with a plan. We must ensure we’re making the best use of the available site, accounting for future processes, demonstrating appropriate technologies at the bench and pilot scale, and understanding the full cost of a project, including new capital improvements, and rehabilitation or replacement (R&R) of aging equipment and facilities. It was time for a master plan!
By using a detailed strategy for delivering capital projects, it allows our clients to make the best use of their limited budgets, prioritizing what needs to be completed first, and avoiding stranded investments. Planning for future growth and meeting future regulatory needs allows communities to thrive, ensuring adequate access to water and sanitation services. However, a detailed and well-thought out capital improvement plan (CIP) isn’t enough.
Many utilities have master plans, and associated CIPs, that just sit on a shelf collecting dust. If master planning is so important, why aren’t these plans being used? Having a plan doesn’t automatically make it easy to implement. There are a number of potential barriers to successful implementation of a master plan. These include political barriers to spending the money, a lack of funding, not having enough staff to deliver the capital program, and capital projects being deferred due to emergency R&R projects, among others.
Political barriers can often be overcome by linking projects to an agency’s strategic plan. Financial planning and rate studies can also be incorporated into the master plan to ensure adequate funding is available to support the capital plan.
A staffing analysis can be completed to make sure adequate human capital is available to manage projects coming out of the CIP and to operate facilities, once improvements are completed. Additionally, we can provide program management to help contract and deliver capital plans.
Asset management can be completed to gain a full understanding of the costs of maintaining existing investments, such as our work through our Water Institute on WRF Project #4480, where we assisted a client in predicting pipe failure and prioritizing a pipe replacement program.
While I still enjoy working on design projects, I’ve found planning to be incredibly rewarding. Proper planning allows our clients (and us) to be more successful in implementing capital programs and designs. Don’t have a strategic plan? We can help you develop one. Tell us some of the issues you’re facing with your utility project.
Main Image: © Jose Manuel Gelpi Diaz | Dreamstime.com