Who is the old man on the hill? Simply put, many organizations have a senior employee in a back office that is stuffed with old files, both in his computer and in his head. Cabinets and tables are piled
with sketches and engineering drawings, along with piles of unorganized notes and scribbles. Everything in this room probably predates the birth of the computer age. This room is a treasure trove of history and knowledge about the ass ets the organization is built on. Items in this room are ignored
and often forgotten for decades. Both the files, and their guardian, will continue to be ignored until
the next emergency or hot project flares up.
Friends tell me the most popular question they hear deals with where utilities run, especially sewer pipelines, because these were the first systems installed and are the deepest. Adding to the confusion
is the fact that sewer pipelines have been built of such diverse materials as Belgium granite bricks during the Civil War years and wood during the World War era.
The second most frequently asked question concerns where water pipelines are buried in cities like St. Louis, Missouri, which installed its original pipelines well over 100 years ago. The “old man’s” ability
to remember which pile of hand drawn sketches and notes contain the wisdom needed can be worth enormous sums.
As proof, let me tell you about how in 2007 a 70-year-old chemical company located in St. Louis constructed a new world headquarters in the old south side of the city’s downtown area. A new water management company had recently taken over the water utility owned by the city and, as often happens, they cleaned out the remnants of the previous management, including “the old man on
the hill” and his messy, obsolete office. The chemical company built its beautiful new world-class headquarters and all was well until one morning about three years later. Everyone woke to a 10-foot
diameter sinkhole and gushing water coming through the concrete floor of their state-of-the-art international financial and worldwide billing computer center. A 24-inch cast iron water pipeline, more than 100 years old, was found in pieces. When the city was contacted, they had no knowledge of owning a water main in the area, but it was hard to ignore the pipeline pieces with the St. Louis Water
Utility nameplate. The costs associated with the damage are still being tabulated, but to date are more than $2,000,000.
Huge disasters like this make great headlines, but it is important to remember the more mundane items utilities face, such as how many man-hours are wasted each year looking for manholes. The old man probably remembers (or can find the plat that shows) where many of them were before the street department asphalted or concreted over them in its last repaving project.
The world is changing and advancing technologies are making locating and protecting the under-ground infrastructure easier. I believe we need to take advantage of these new technologies, but I also believe that us “old men on the hill” bring valuable knowledge and history to an industry that is still developing.
Gary Weil is the retired president of EnTech Engineering and a guest columnist for Damage Prevention Professional. He is a self-proclaimed “Old Man on the Hill” with many years experience protecting the underground infrastructure. Gary can be reached at email@example.com.