The service benefits of strategic asset management

© R Brito

Faced with a need to optimise investment, strategic asset management can help utilities achieve greater flexibility in their services. Jac van Tuijn spoke to Rita Brito, chair of IWA’s Specialist Group on Strategic Asset Management.

Maintenance and replacement of ageing assets is keeping water utilities increasingly busy. They must make decisions looking 20 or 30 years ahead and the amount of investment required can be staggering. Having an asset management plan is therefore essential to help structure the arguments for these decisions.

“In Portugal, such plans are legally required for public organisations that service more than 30,000 people,” comments Rita Salgado Brito, chair of the IWA Specialist Group on Strategic Asset Management. “In some funding programmes, our national government checks developments in these plans before it provides additional money from national funds.”

Brito’s day-to-day role is as a researcher at the Urban Water Unit of the National Civil Engineering Laboratory (LNEC) in Lisbon, Portugal. According to her, the main function of asset management is to balance performance, risks and cost, all in a long-term perspective. The hcg injection more precise use of strategic asset management also requires the organisation to have objectives.

“There needs to be an ‘umbrella’. In our IWA vision, it always starts with the question of what the objectives of the organisation are – for instance, the guarantee of efficiency in service supply, or sustainability, or customer satisfaction,” she says. “The next step is to diagnose the assets’ behaviour today, and the final step is to analyse whether they meet the objectives in the years to come.”

Asset management tools

There are various tools available to utilities. For example, Brito explains that members of the IWA Specialist Group were involved in development of the award-winning Aware-P methodology for water and wastewater utilities. This integrates management, information, engineering, performances, costs and risks, and can be used as a tool for management to take more rational decisions about future developments.

According to Brito, Portuguese water utilities were among the first to use the methodology for their strategic and tactical Infrastructure Asset Management (IAM) plans, especially in terms of having a national project. “Today, we are implementing collaborative initiatives with utilities that allow them to use this methodology to develop such plans. At the same time, we also work on specific tools for specific objectives, as we have done on water losses,” she continues, referring in particular to undue sewer inflows – the unplanned inflow that is not desirable to accommodate.

“We have to bear in mind that the assets must be robust and flexible enough to meet future demands. We need to be able to readjust them after a crisis or changing circumstances.” As an example, Brito says a utility may be in a position where it could potentially reduce the size of a reservoir but would also have to consider the possibility that more storage capacity may be needed in the future.

Brito points out that strategic asset management can also be used to reconsider whether a like-for-like replacement of an obsolete asset is appropriate. “One can ask oneself if the asset is really needed. It may be a good moment to rethink the system and plan for a new development.” As an example, she comes back to the inflow of sewer systems. “If the objective is to transport sanitary wastewater, this excludes, for example, rainwater, groundwater infiltration or fluvial inflows, and, instead of keeping or increasing the pipe diameter to accommodate these undue inflows, maybe it can be reduced and a different solution has to be found for rainwater, infiltration or connections from urban streams.”

“We have to bear in mind that the assets must be robust and flexible enough to meet future demands. We need to be able to readjust them after a crisis or changing circumstances”

Wider use

LNEC is currently involved in a national project for strategic asset management for irrigation schemes. “We are looking at ways to minimise water use. In many regions in Portugal, agriculture is the biggest water user and, next to cities and industry, they too bear responsibility for the future use of water,” Brito says. “With farmers, farmer organisations and utilities, we are looking at irrigation services with minimal water losses and less energy use. We also look at the long-term financial sustainability of these schemes.”

A methodology to assess urban water or irrigation systems has been developed and applied in four steps: breakdown into functional areas, disaggregation of infrastructure components, diagnosis of reference situation, and evaluation of long-term alternatives for rehabilitation investment planning. The methodology is in line with the IAM approach recommended by IWA and the ISO 55000 standards on asset management. The application of IAM made it possible to indicate a path towards economic sustainability without compromising the infrastructure sustainability: it is based on gradual replacement of the assets reaching their useful life, combined with a continuous rehabilitation rate.

“AS experts, we have roots in many projects on asset management around the world. Coming from different places, we realise that water utilities operate under different circumstances”

A need for progress

Brito sees that the COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of asset management. She says she is amazed by the extent to which utilities managed to keep their services up and running, but sees also that the pandemic served as a warning.

“Certain organisations were better prepared for the unexpected situation than others. Utilities with more flexible systems were able to postpone their maintenance more easily,” says Brito, who sees this as a positive outcome of the pandemic. “There is more awareness now about being better prepared for the unknown. This may imply that we need to invest more today.”

More generally, use of infrastructure asset management needs to be supported by public policy. “You can have extremely good engineering and efficiently managed organisations, but you also need supportive public policies to protect the interest of participants and regulation of fair tariffs,” says Brito, adding that this applies both for service providers and for consumers.

“Organisations that plan ahead look at the age, condition and performance of their assets, and it requires certain investments to keep the services going. Asset management can show how much is needed and whether a tariff increase is viable enough,” she adds.

IWA’s role in sharing of expertise

For Brito, the activities within the IWA expert platform provide a good indicator for new developments. “As experts, we have roots in many projects on asset management around the world. Coming from different places, we realise that water utilities operate under different circumstances. By disseminating our knowledge, we can pick up trends and work on the maturity of asset management in the water sector,” she says.

Particular needs include tailoring general methodologies to more precise tools that can be applied locally, and Brito sees that these should be kept in mind as IWA and its members seek to contribute further. “There are many good tools available, but still we need to evolve and assess the impacts of climate change, emerging pollutants and the diversification of water sources,” she says.

“But we need to keep our feet on the ground. We have to be aware that many utilities have only just started to use asset management tools and are still struggling with the registration of their assets.”

Jac van Tuijn is a journalist specialising in water