When a utility takes on a yeoman task such as replacing an estimated more than 1,590 miles of mains and more than 234,530 gas services, some complications are naturally expected to arise.
However, when, as in the case of Washington Gas’ accelerated pipeline replacement programs, the work takes place across two states and the District of Columbia – causing it to be overseen by a throng of permitting agencies – sorting out the usual intricacies of basic logistics becomes just the tip of the organizational iceberg.
“We operate within so many local jurisdictions, and those permitting requirements are different and always changing,” said Tracy Townsend, vice president of Construction, Compliance and Safety, at Washington Gas. “That includes whether we can stockpile materials on the street, set up staging areas, and involved increased traffic control, not only for vehicles but also for pedestrians and cyclists.”
Townsend, who has been with Washington Gas for 15 years, is at the forefront of the company’s massive accelerated replacement effort. In all, the programs in Virginia and Maryland, in addition to the one in the nation’s capital, will be underway from 15 to 40 years and replace bare and unprotected steel services, bare or unprotected targeted steel mains, cast iron, copper and vintage plastic services.
In all, the company anticipates investing $650 million over the next five years on infrastructure replacement projects or an average of $130 million per year.
In its Virginia territory, Washington Gas is in the sixth year of a program, originally scheduled for 15 years but was expanded by two years, in which the company plans to replace about 390 miles of mains and 98,000 services in the remaining years. In Maryland, now in year two of a 22-year program that was originally filed as a 30-year program, Townsend said about 550 miles of mains and 64,000 services will be changed out over the remaining 20 years.
Meanwhile, in the District of Columbia, where some of the oldest pipe in the nation –dating back to the 1920s and 1930s – is located, Washington Gas is in the second year of a 40-year program, and still looking to replace about 480 miles of mains and 36,000 services.
“This is a pretty advanced pipeline safety program,” Townsend said. “We will file at five-year increments and receive approval for those increments in each of the jurisdictions. Each of those three jurisdictions either required legislative accommodations for the funding or regulatory.”
In all, 520 miles of cast iron are being replaced, the majority of it in the District of Columbia. Most of that pipe, according to Townsend, is being replaced with medium-density polyethylene, the majority of which is 2-inch or smaller.
“There are some larger pipes associated with the cast iron. For some of those, obviously, we would be using larger diameter and in some cases, high-density polyethylene pipes,” she said.
Townsend, who has held her current position for two years, sees the biggest challenge in employing the programs not as the utility-dense underground construction posed by some of the locations, but as the need to establish effective communications with all of the affected parties, including customers, businesses and other residents. There are also other utilities, the local Departments of Transportation (DOT), public officials and the myriad of regulatory commissions to keep in the loop as well.
“Certainly with the DOTs, we have to manage all of the permitting complexities that exist,” she said.
In two of Washington Gas’ three jurisdictions, web-based software is used, allowing all of the utilities to enter their constructions plans in order to coordinate work schedules with each other. In turn, this allows the DOT jurisdiction to issue permits accordingly.
“Sometimes we not only coordinate the sequencing of the work, but we share in the restoration efforts at the conclusion of all of the construction,” Townsend said.
She added the company should have a lot more opportunity to do so going forward. With Pepco, a District of Columbia-based electric company, at the beginning of a reliability improvement project, Washington Gas has assigned engineers to work with the general contractor to schedule sequencing for the pipe replacement “to get in and then get out of the way” as effectively as possible.
Permitting comes into play at nearly every turn, including guidelines on whether materials can be stockpiled on the street, or if staging areas are even allowed in certain areas. Additionally, permit restrictions sometime limit the company’s ability to start early in the morning or work late. Sometimes these limitations require Washington Gas to “flip-flop” standard scheduling, possibly working at night to lessen the disruption to the community.
“In some of our areas, predominantly inside the beltway in the D.C. area, there is a high concentration of paved surfaces and dense underground, so certainly effective communications on utility construction is, historically, a big hurdle to overcome,” Townsend said.
Washington Gas has found some customers prefer to be home or at their places of business when the company is working around their property. In other situations, such as when meters are moved from inside to outside, residents are required to be home. When your company serves about 1.1 million residential, commercial and industrial customers (ranking it 19th among gas distribution companies, according to P&GJ’s annual 500 Report), it requires plenty of interaction to keep things sorted out.
“The traditional methods of sharing information have been tried and true for us,” Townsend said of her company’s outreach methods. These include mailings and the use of neighborhood or community signs giving advanced notice of impacts, including sidewalk and road closures, traffic-control areas going into effect, and necessary changes in traffic or pedestrian patterns. Among the most effective methods of communication, she said, is door-to-door customer meetings in which contractors explain how individual properties will be affected by the construction schedule.
Washington Gas recently introduced a project map to its website as well. It provides information on the main construction projects in D.C. and both states. Customers can zoom in near their address and click to learn project duration, the type of work being done and who to contact with questions.
“Close coordination with residential and business customers is extremely necessary in order to limit any type of interruption to their schedules, their access to their streets, and any type of temporary interruption to their service,” she said. “Commercial customers, as you can imagine, want to minimize any downtime to their schedule.”
Staging and Technologies
Coming up with staging areas can be tricky and often requires working out arrangements with businesses and even homeowners. As a result, equipment and materials sometimes end up located farther than the ideal distance from worksites.
“Sometimes we use vacant lots or portions of a parking lot,” Townsend said. “This is limiting but we ultimately get something that’s acceptable to the installing contractor.”
To combat some of the hard-surface restoration requirements, Washington Gas used keyhole, or small-hole technology, for coring and reinstallation of the core, then relied on long-handled tools and inline cameras for inspection. As crews move into some of the main and service replacement programs, directional drilling becomes more applicable.
“That’s usually done in the right-of-way, or what we call the tree space,” she said. “With directional drilling and the potential risk of [encountering] sewer laterals, we also employ inspection cameras for pre- and post-installation for use of trenchless technologies.”
While not necessarily a field technology, Washington Gas also relies on a commercially available risk model that allowed it to prioritize higher risk pipe and establish an order for replacement of sections.
With all of its current programs, both underground and meter replacement, being performed by contractors, Townsend stressed that Washington Gas views these relationships as having developed into lasting, strategic alliances, with unit pricing-based contracts. This contrasts to years ago when a job-by-job bidding process was used.
“We really approach our contractors as partners in a medium- or long-term relationship,” she said. “We have fewer contractors with larger contracts and more turnkey type of activity that they perform.”
As a result of this relationship, Washington Gas sees its contractor alliance, which began more than a dozen years ago, as a huge boost in the company’s effort to find qualified professionals to support its growing replacement efforts.
“It’s up to us, as the utility, and our contractors, to shorten the learning curve in technical and leadership skills,” Townsend said. “In the past, folks were able to grow up on a crew, but we’ve had to really shorten that and have very purposeful learning programs in order to develop employees.”
With the loss of long-term, experienced employees to retirement, along with increasing regulation and the focus on pipeline safety, Washington Gas has found its workforce requires a different set of skills than in the past. Additionally, certifications come into play with greater frequency.
“That we, in particular, operate in an area that has a very low unemployment rate tends to present its own challenges for this type of field or construction work,” Townsend said. “We have taken on the training and qualifying, and development role in very formal ways.”
To that point, Washington Gas and two of Washington Gas’ contractors, a local company (Dynamic Concepts Inc. (DCI) and a national company Northern Pipeline Construction (NPL), have set up controlled training facilities. Built in the greater Washington Metropolitan area, the facilities simulate an urban community to train field operators, line supervisors, contractors and in the case of Washington Gas’ facility, even emergency-responders, on safety in a controlled environment.
The two contractors have also set up hands-on simulations – not only classroom activities. Additionally, Washington Gas has participated in the Virginia Gas Operations Association’s enhanced operator qualification program to meet the increasing complexity of training and qualifying employees.
“It’s a journey, but I feel like we are at least on the journey now,” Townsend said.
Besides infrastructure replacement, Washington Gas has had plenty of additional work generated by customer interest in affordable natural gas in recent years. In 2015, alone the company added 12,000 meters to its service territories – of those 1,500 were for customer conversions, according to company records.
“We’re also targeting communities throughout our service territory that haven’t previously been served with natural gas,” she said. “So it’s an important focus for us to meet the needs of those who want to convert.”
Townsend’s own conversion to natural gas, so to speak, began not long after she entered the workforce from college, when she took a job with a family-owned underground utility construction company that had worked for Washington Gas.
“I was really fortunate to learn about Washington Gas’ distribution and transmission piping system from the field into the office,” Townsend said. “I entered this industry at a time when Washington Gas was growing very rapidly.”
At the time, her employer was doing installations for between 25,000-30,000 new customers a year. Needless to say, there was a lot of construction to learn about and from an employer whose first priority was safety.
“This owner took enormous pride in doing quality, safe work and supporting his employees,” she continued. “The team spirit is what attracted me to go to work for that company and kept me in the industry instead of going on to law school.”
Townsend, who recently celebrated her 15th anniversary at Washington Gas, has also held positions as Division Head of Safety, Compliance, Construction Operations Support and Construction and Field Operations.
“It’s a great time to be in the industry,” she said. “It has longevity to it.”