The GIS tools have been a game changer for us. We can visualize our work activity and track our progress. And we now have the ability to automatically capture and route the obstructions we find into our Lucity work order system, which manages our notification-of-obstruction workflow with our customers.
Ensuring That Thousands of Easements Remain Accessible Is Critical to Maintaining Infrastructure and Keeping Communities Safe
In the Charlotte metropolitan area, Union County Water operates and maintains the regional system that provides retail water and wastewater service to 55,000 customers located throughout unincorporated Union County as well as 13 of the 15 municipalities within the county.
With over 1,800 miles of service lines in its distribution system, Union County Water is also responsible for the areas where water and wastewater infrastructure assets (e.g., pipes and maintenance holes) are on private property. These areas are known as easements.
With over 7,700 easements throughout the county, staff turned to web-based maps and apps to inspect and maintain all water and wastewater assets that fell outside the right-of-way.
For years, Union County Water relied on paper reference maps with hand-drawn easements to direct staff in mowing and maintenance activities for the organization's easement inspection program. Staff would report back with an estimate of how many easements were mowed and tell if any major obstructions were found. That information would then be transcribed from a checklist into a paper or tabular report.
The amount of time spent on this easement inspection workflow caused such a backlog of work that it was hard to track work orders and keep information current. Field employees were unsure of where certain assets were in relation to the employees' exact locations, and they lacked the ability to inform office staff in real time. Furthermore, seeing any progress of work was impossible.
The utility's geographic information system (GIS) staff worked with the easement inspection team to develop a geographic approach to its inspection workflow to answer each of the pain points the team had previously encountered.
"We had a fairly comprehensive GIS for our water and sewer assets, but the easement dataset was a mess," said Luke Fawcett, Business Systems Program Manager at Union County Water. "The first step we took was to identify all water and sewer mains that were spatially off-street. We assumed that those segments had easements, and that was our starting point for the dataset. Over time, we index those with plans and as-builts and build the attributes in our inspection process."
GIS Is for Field Inspection Crews
The benefit of mapping all of the easements really came when staff incorporated that spatial information and put it into the hands of easement inspectors.
Starting with the custom-built Easement Inspection Zone Builder web map, which uses the data of the easement locations, each easement section is color coded depending on when an inspection was conducted–when an inspection is past due, the section turns red.
"The web map also includes critical information pertaining to each easement, such as whether it's been mowed, the date of the last inspection, who inspected it, [and] whether there's an obstruction present," said Fawcett. "With a few clicks, I can filter through the data and provide real-time answers to common questions such as, 'Where are all of the obstructions? Where are all easements other entities manage?' The data becomes interactive instead of sitting in file cabinets."
This same map is referenced in each easement inspector's Apple iOS device when they are conducting field inspections. Using ArcGIS Collector, an app that leverages a mobile device to capture asset photos, notes, and locations, staff members can conduct their inspections and provide real-time information that updates the easement colors on the Easement Inspection Zone Builder map.
As field personnel work throughout the day, those in the office can see real-time progress of what's left to inspect versus what has been completed. Never needing to transfer inspection paper work manually once field personnel come back from work assignments has improved productivity and provided managers with complete awareness of day-to-day operations.
The data acquired through the inspection process has facilitated a significant jump in efficiency and allowed for a more targeted and strategic approach to the program as a whole. "As the crews inspect and move through each zone, they are able to identify easements that are normally maintained by other entities, such as a homeowner or a golf course. Going forward, this will allow for us to focus our time on more critical areas and easements that might need more significant mowing activity. It's data-informed decisions and practical asset management, all facilitated by great GIS tools and quality data," said Fawcett.
The likelihood that access to water and wastewater assets is obstructed increases when it's on an easement. Whether it's a tree, bush, fence, or any other obstruction, it can hinder Union County Water from maintaining, repairing, inspecting, or replacing a water or sewer line.
"You'd be surprised, but we've seen everything from being fenced-off [from] our easements, to pools and trees impeding access to the pipes and maintenance holes we need to service," said Hayden Hunter, easement crew leader for Union County Water.
As staff members conduct their inspections and come across an obstruction, all they need to do is fill out the fields in the ArcGIS Collector app, take a picture of the obstruction, and submit their inspection.
All easement obstruction photos are simultaneously uploaded into the Easement Inspection Photos web map, where office staff can click on each easement that has an obstruction and see the related photo.
When the inspection is flagged with an obstruction, the information is automatically fed directly into Union County Water's work order management system and triggers a work order request to clear the area of any obstructions. Instead of relying on someone to submit the work order request by the end of the day, the process has now become synchronized.
Accessible easements allow Union County Water to save valuable time in responding to emergencies such as a sanitary sewer overflow. This reduces further damage to the distribution system, the environment, and nearby properties.
Later this year, the GIS team with Union County Water plans to turn to ArcGIS Field Maps, an all-in-one app that uses data-driven maps to help mobile workers perform data collection and editing for their inspection operations.