A toast, blessing or curse that is purported by some to be a Chinese proverb, states, “May you live in interesting times.” Today, our world is certainly interesting. With an unparalleled world economic slowdown, a crisis of confidence in banking, the stock market collapse, high unemployment, dependence on foreign oil, record deficits and shooting wars on two fronts, our times are about as interesting as we can stand. Today, dull seems like an attractive alternative!
Please do not misunderstand – these “interesting” issues are real problems that our nation must address. However, over time, one learns the flip side of every problem is an opportunity, and – at this point in our nation’s history – this is especially true for the natural gas industry. There are many reasons for this, but among them are:
- Our new president has made energy independence a major goal of his administration, including the use of clean sources of energy. Congress will fight over the details but the objective seems bipartisan.
- Natural gas is among the cleanest sources of energy currently available to us in the quantity that will make a difference, especially over the near term.
- Natural gas is abundant today and significant additional sources have been identified and are available for future needs.
- Another of the president’s objectives is to jump-start the economy through job creation. A huge stimulus package has been passed into law and more is expected. The natural gas industry is, in the current vernacular, “shovel-ready” today to respond by expanding current distribution systems and rehabilitating existing systems, both of which are national priorities.
To properly exploit these new opportunities while struggling with the same economic pressures as any other business, the natural gas industry must respond with new and creative approaches – just more of the same will not fly. Our industry, like all others, must continue to learn to do more with less.
We have all been through this for a period of time now and the low hanging fruit has already been picked. We are about done (we hope) with layoffs and early retirements, outsourcing and consolidation.
The next big step for us is to invest in new, cost-effective technologies and products so we can do more with less. The challenge is clear – to continually invest in new products and processes to enhance the safety and productivity of our gas-distribution systems.
The problem, or challenge, is with the word “new.” In this industry, nothing “new” is ever put in the ground without confirmation that the product will first, meet all applicable codes and standards requirements and second, meet all the performance requirements of the user. This product confirmation or evaluation process is not easy. It requires competent, experienced, technical people to:
- Properly identify, understand and interpret all of their distribution system’s safety and performance requirements, along with any unique environmental concerns or requirements.
- Ensure all of their systems requirements are properly documented and specified, either in a local standard or a national standard.
- Understand all of the applicable local, state and national codes and standards that apply to their system and the products they intend to use in their system.
- Conduct whatever tests and evaluations that may be required to ensure new products comply with the documented requirements, codes and standards.
Unfortunately, a huge dilemma exists because, as utilities restructured, many of these skilled technical people were lost or reassigned and replacing them is expensive and very time-consuming. There is a cost-effective solution to this dilemma and it has two principle parts:
- Insist that national product standards completely and accurately reflect the needs of your company and the industry you represent.
- Use the services of a competent, third-party certifying agency to prove that the new product you are considering does, in fact, meet the standards you specify.
Part 1 can be addressed in the following manner: Send qualified technical personnel to participate in product review meetings conducted by the American Gas Association and national standards meetings, especially those conducted by American Society for Testing & Materials (ASTM International) and American Society of Mechanical Engineers (ASME).
Participation in standards writing activity should not be viewed as a cost but rather as a high-payback investment in the enhanced integrity of your systems.
Industry Users Welcome
Industry representatives, identified as “users” by ASTM and ASME, are especially welcome. Their input is valuable because they alone can best articulate their needs, and, with the willing assistance of experts in many disciplines, help properly identify the requirements that will satisfy the needs that have been articulated.
Don’t be intimidated by “experts” because, in fact, we are all simultaneously both expert and ignorant, just of different subjects. The Ph.D. polymer chemist may understand how a particular material is formulated, but you know how you want to use it; and, it is this shared expertise that results in complete and useful standards.
With the power of negative votes on inadequate standards, they will be updated to include the requirements you need.
Finally, do away with the “special” test that only you perform. If it is so special, include it in the standard by the method outlined above – this is not as difficult as you may think; and, if it is just nice to know, who can afford niceties?
Part II relates to the utilization of competent and unbiased third parties to evaluate new products for you. Remarkably, this third-party approval service is free to utilities. All you need to do is insist on third-party certification before a new product is approved for purchase. If enough buyers (utilities) insist on third-party approval, it will happen.
The burden is on the supplier of that new product to seek out and obtain that certification if they want to sell to you. If the rules are clear and there are no exceptions, product suppliers will use these services. In fact, leading suppliers welcome a clearly defined and industry-accepted path to new-product approval.
Another critical advantage offered by the third-party organization is that it maintains an ongoing monitoring and testing program with the suppliers, so that years from now you can still be assured that the product is in compliance. Suppliers, in order to maintain their certification, are subject to at least yearly random audits of their products and facilities. Failure to maintain compliant products and processes – and institute meaningful corrective actions if needed – will cause loss of certification. Most utilities do not have the capability to continually visit and monitor the performance of their suppliers.
For many years Canada has had just such a third-party organization called the Canadian Standards Association (CSA) and, by law in most provinces, a product must first obtain CSA approval before it can be offered for sale.
There is no such law in the U.S. and none is desired; but there is at least one such certifying organization offering voluntary certification, the Certification Institute of North America (CINA). Unlike other standards and certification bodies, CINA’s focus is solely on products intended for use in the natural gas distribution industry. CINA is ANSI-accredited and seems to have an intimate knowledge of the applicable natural gas codes and standards. In addition, it is ANSI-accredited to write technical standards, should none exist for a product desiring certification. CINA has the ability to perform the initial evaluation and approval process as well as the annual monitoring function.
More than ever, now is time for new approaches and third-party organizations like CINA can play a vital rule in expanding new-product utilization without the risk of unsafe or non-compliant products.
Author’s note – Contact information for CINA: CINA, Crossroads Corporate Center, One International Blvd, Suite 400, Mahwah, NJ 07495. P: 201-512-8712.
Richard (Dick) Conley is chief engineer and project manager or Kerotest Manufacturing Corp based in Pittsburgh, PA. The company is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year, and its 25th year as an employee-owned company.