Water & Sewer Infrastructure Protection Summit

The 2022 Water & Sewer Infrastructure Summit took place March 2, during Global Excavation Safety Conference in Phoenix, AZ. This year’s primary topic was, “What does responsible potholing look like?” Moderated by Erin Hayes, General Manager of Kingsbrook Rural Water, panelists Robert Edwards, Eric Larson, and Charles Bell led an engaging discussion on potholing techniques, variables, and challenges.

Moderator: Erin Hayes, General Manager, Kingsbrook Rural Water
Robert (Bob) Edwards, Supervisor Water Operations Citizens Energy Group
Eric Larson, Sr Manager Western Division, Illinois American Water
Charles Bell, Sales Manager, VacMasters

Bob Edwards, Supervisor of Water Operations at Citizens Energy Group, opened the discussion with a clear summation of his view on potholing choices. Bob laid out three options:
1.No potholing
2.Potholing and backfilling
3.Potholing and leaving it open, which is the right way

He went on to outline Citizen Energy Group’s guidelines for potholing. “For each utility, the vacuum excavator will know what they’re looking to find. That could be steel pipe, iron pipe, stacked facilities, conduit, etc. Through vacuum excavation, they expose the tops, sides, and under the utility. If we’re trenching, we’ll backfill with peat gravel and mark it with depth. If it’s directional drilling, we’ll cover with a street plate and watch the boring rig go safely beneath, in the case of water, the facility. This is standard operating procedure for Citizen Energy Group and we hold our partners to that standard,” Bob said.

Having a standard operating procedure is just one part of the process, though. The other is ensuring that operators follow it. On that, Eric Larsen, Senior Manager Western Division of Illinois American Water, sees two elements to achieving it: Internal and External.

“Internally, it’s about our team having the right tools for the job as well as fully believing in doing it the right way. The first part is the physical stuff, tools like a vacuum excavator. The mental ‘stuff ’ is the engagement. There’s been a generational changeover and there’s knowledge loss when that happens,” Eric said.

To address that knowledge loss, Illinois American Water has found success in partnering with Ameren Illinois and their damage prevention specialist. Eric recommends building relationships with local gas and electric companies and their public outreach employees.

The second element is external, and Eric says that’s “Putting our weight into it.” Those actions include:

• An annual safety meeting every March with contractors. This meeting sets mutual expectations and goes a long way in building positive relationships.

• Writing safety elements into the contracts

• Promotion through physical banners and on social media

Charles Bell of VacMasters offered a unique perspective from the manufacturer side of things. Outside of best practices with their vacuum excavators, VacMasters puts an emphasis on the basic safety elements of a job site. Traffic safety, hearing protection, and awareness of your surroundings (like overhead powerlines) are pillars of safe excavation that are too easily forgotten when the bustle and noise of the job begins.

Charles also spoke about the safety benefits of air excavation on jobs that required more precision. Air flows around utilities, whereas hydroexcavation has the potential risk of damaging more fragile utilities. In Charles view, both air and hydro-excavation have solid use cases, but it’s important to consider the benefits and deficiencies of both in the context of a specific project.

The summit panel also discussed a topic that has been at the forefront for everyone in the industry: Communicating workload and getting projects located. One step, they agreed, was communicating with other utilities on big projects. Coordinating, as much is practical or possible, on large locate requests could help alleviate backup. At the very least, projects could become more predictable for all sides.

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