An interview with David J. Penny, Executive Director of Canada’s Corrugated Steel Pipe Institute, on the launch of its new online newsmagazine, In The Trenches.
Why is CSPI launching In The Trenches?
There are many stakeholders with a vested interest in CSP, including provincial highways departments, municipalities, mining companies, forestry companies, consulting engineers and contractors, and we’re all in this together. So, collectively, we must strive to constantly improve what we offer our customers in each of these segments. Budgets get tighter every year and our customers and prospects expect and deserve better performance and value as our knowledge and technologies evolve.
In The Trenches was created to promote industry awareness of the relevance and advantages of corrugated steel pipe as an important part of effective, environmentally sound soil and water management practices. Accordingly, our goal is to develop and share articles, information and stories, disseminate educational information and provide thoughtful opinion regarding the important benefits that corrugated steel products bring to a wide array of applications within Canada’s resource and engineering sectors.
So, why is corrugated steel pipe so important to Canada’s future?
Every day we walk and drive our cars over and under them. They enable our cities, our provinces and our country to thrive. Yet, we rarely think about them – unless and until something goes wrong.
And, remember, there’s nothing ‘optional’ about working infrastructures. They keep our cities, farms, factories, mines and natural resources humming. Without good infrastructure, Canada wouldn’t be a world competitor, or so admired globally as a great place to live. And, for more than a century, corrugated steel pipe has been a crucial component of Canada’s infrastructures, delivering performance, durability and long service life in a wide variety of applications.
So, yes, we see our role as being a vital part in keeping our towns, cities, factories, mines – you name it – operationally viable and competitive. As we see it, that makes what we do a very significant part in maintaining Canada as we know it.
A recent ‘sinkhole’ in our capital once again focused public attention on the deteriorating state of Canada’s infrastructure. Although this particular problem originated with a long-forgotten, temporary tunnel, many other infrastructure elements with too many years of service in our harsh Canadian environment continue to surprise us, necessitating ‘emergency’ rehabilitation, or replacement, at great cost and inconvenience to governments and their citizens.
Where do these problems exist – are the regionalized?
Yes, to a degree they are regional in nature, for sure. With respect to CSP, we experience bigger problems in the north than in Southern Canada and bigger problems in the east than in the west. To a large extent the Canadian Shield defines Northern Canada; not only is it one of the most challenging places in the world to build infrastructure, but its environment is also extremely sensitive to such things as acid rain. Infrastructure in Eastern Canada is generally older and more industrialized than in the west, and westerly winds bring additional challenges to the east.
So, when designing and building infrastructure components, you had better have a good understanding of the local environmental and weather conditions in which you’re working, as well as an intimate knowledge of soil types and water chemistry, climate stats and any other relevant anomalies or vagaries of the area, specifically in the area immediately surrounding the installation.
And you should also be revisiting previous design strategies and decisions that you and/or other engineers have made in the past at the site – whether it was installed a decade or a century ago – to see if they worked as planned and, if not, how they might be modified or improved this time around.
But what can CSPI do on its own?
On our own, not much. But at CSPI we feel part of our mission to support the case for CSP is to help and encourage everyone involved in our industry to collaboratively improve all aspects of proper planning, installation and maintenance of infrastructure components. Accordingly, CSPI offers ongoing service and technical counsel for projects involving CSP, to ensure the correct type and size of pipe is selected and properly installed.
How and where is there potential for improvement?
Primarily in new technologies developed to address specific environments and extend service life, which is something we’ve made great strides in over the past two decades. We now have special coatings and other advanced technologies that significantly extend the service life of CSP in environments that are particularly hostile and corrosive. And our members are working constantly to develop new technological defenses to thwart other specific environmental threats.
However, even if everything is done perfectly, a pipe can only fulfill its Estimated Material Service Life (EMSL) with absolute certainty if environmental conditions remain the same. But, of course, in real life they never do. The world is in a constant state of change. Things are rarely inert, so installations must be supported by periodic inspections and, when necessary, appropriate remediation, rehabilitation or replacement.
And in real life, as we all learn as we grow older, things wear out. Not some things, but everything. So, to reduce the cost of maintaining existing CSP solutions within Canada’s expansive infrastructure, we need better tools and enhanced protocols to more accurately predict the likelihood of failure, because preemptive maintenance costs much less than emergency repair.
So you’re talking about anticipating and addressing problems before they happen?
Yes. We need better ways to monitor performance, identify problems and fix them more efficiently. But, because our country is so vast and water rich, there are innumerable installations, virtually everywhere, and we’ll never be able to prevent all sinkholes or other types of failure. Can we reduce them? Absolutely. Although it is a daunting task to address these issues over such a widespread area, we know for sure we can reduce failure rates. With a challenge of such magnitude, we know we’ll never eliminate failures, we’re certain that, together, we can significantly improve the current situation. So there’s no question it is an initiative with a very worthwhile goal.
Just how many CSP installations are there in Canada?
The number of locations is inestimable. Geography alone makes periodic inspection and repair or replacement of underground pipes a daunting undertaking. The enormity of the challenge means that, in order to improve efficiencies of spending, stakeholders will need to find new and better ways to prioritize infrastructure decisions, so that they spend monies where it will provide the greatest return for taxpayers. Public safety is always the number one priority; however, when all is said and done, it’s always going to be about money. Inadequate budgets are continually being stretched to try and deliver more and better solutions. And, although CSPI and its members are certainly not unbiased, we do have decades of empirical research that prove, clearly and demonstrably, CSP offers a better long-term solution versus the alternatives, for many infrastructure projects in many sectors. So, all we’re trying to do with this initiative, really, is secure more opportunities for our members to demonstrate – during the design/planning stages of infrastructure projects – the performance advantages and financial benefits of using CSP.
How can this initiative gain traction as a priority in the minds of CSP stakeholders?
Although it seems to be part of human nature, when dealing with buried infrastructure components, ‘out of sight, out of mind’ is clearly unacceptable. In order to implement improved inspection protocols when an installation is first completed, there are many things that need to be evaluated to ensure the installation is sound. These include making sure that both the materials supplied and the installation methodologies comply with the specifications.
As I mentioned earlier, in a static world, achieving predicted EMSL would be a virtual slam-dunk. But in the real world environments exist in a constant state of change. Consequently, for the sake of public safety, diligence in inspecting, diagnosing and repairing problems precipitated by changes in the surrounding environment is paramount as a tool for pre-emptive remediation which, of course, is inevitably less expensive and inconvenient than those requiring emergency repair or replacement.
Again, with regular, frequent and thorough inspections of the entire installation, earlier diagnosis of a problem is more likely, and cost of its remediation will generally be reduced.
So the CSPI is looking to promote increased knowledge of required CSP maintenance protocols and awareness of symptoms that suggest problems may be developing?
Yes. Knowledge and vigilance are key. We must all be proactive, but we also must be certain. If we see a hole in a pipe, we of course know there’s a problem with the pipe itself that needs to be addressed. But, we can’t assume it stops there; instead, we must look at the bigger picture and address the entire installation and the cause(s). Is there evidence of any backfill coming through the hole in the pipe? Are there any cracks in the pavement at the site, or maybe a small hole in the road? If so, that is the time to investigate the cause, shut it down if necessary and take preemptive action.
There are often many clues that may indicate a problem, providing those doing the inspection know what to look for. In general, any visible change should be carefully scrutinized. However, some onsite clues may be a bit esoteric, which is one reason why CSPI offers educational and technical resource materials, as well as expert counsel, to help all stakeholders make better decisions.
Shouldn’t contractors and engineers already know this?
In today’s world, no one can know everything, even in a narrow, specialized field. And, although Canada’s engineers and contractors are highly skilled and experienced, every site problem is quite unique and, if their past experiences don’t include truly comparable situations, their assumptions could be wrong, or they might miss symptomatic details at the site which provide more finite diagnostic information.
Infrastructure owners looking to hire firms should go to great lengths to ensure their people have experience that is specifically relevant to the project in question. Do they know the local environment well enough? Do they merely accept that the problem is as they were briefed, or do they insist on confirming the nature of the original diagnosis before devising a plan of how to fix it?
What are some visible clues that unseen problems may be brewing below ground?
The importance of early and appropriate reaction to visible symptoms is key. Early warning signs of a problem are the ideal time to identify the specific problem and fix it before it becomes a major failure. That way, repairs can be done more easily and for less, with a shorter interruption at the site and less inconvenience for those who use or depend upon it.
Another area which must be addressed with comprehensive planning and extreme caution is the methodology employed to complete on-site remediation. Sometimes there are simply no other options and the road must be closed. But, whether the task ends up being a repair, a rehabilitation, or replacement, great care must be taken to ensure safety for the public and workers, and that any action taken will not exacerbate the original problem.
And CSPI is a resource installers can lean on to be sure they’re doing it right?
Absolutely. Contractors must be sure they know and understand what they’re dealing with, so if they are unsure of anything, they can access the CSPI for advice and assistance. CSPI has learned from the experience of contractors around the world, and this collective experience is shared freely. In addition to starting with an accurate diagnosis of the problem, they must also understand how flexible pipe works, as opposed to rigid pipe. Similar to ‘the observer effect’ in physics, which notes that measuring, or even merely observing, certain systems cannot be made without affecting those very systems, one must calculate the likelihood of any negative collateral consequences which could result with the chosen remediation method and address them before proceeding.
And what about using alternative materials vs. CSP?
Sure, if money were no object, engineers could merely overbuild things to make them last beyond the Design Service Life (DSL). But as we all know, in the real world, money matters. We’re involved in an industry that is literally building a country every day, piece by piece, and CSPI helps ‘write the books’ and specifications on how to do it correctly. So, we understand that most infrastructure projects have to be completed with a limited amount of money, which, in turn, requires good engineering and ingenuity, while consuming minimal amounts of our precious, but ever-diminishing, resources.
And the way to do that is to work smarter, by using fewer resources and spending less money to arrive at an optimal solution that achieves the DSL. CSP solutions use smaller amounts of steel, vs. alternative materials; and, with special coatings and properly compacted natural backfill materials, matched to the water and soil chemistry of its environment, they generally offer the most prudent and cost-effective answer. When installed properly, CSP will meet or exceed expectations very economically.
What, specifically, needs improving and why?
Well, the sheer number of installations, both urban and remote, is staggering, so properly monitoring their condition and performance becomes quite daunting. When we have failures, such as sinkholes, it can be due to many things. Underground pipes exist amidst many exterior forces in a dynamic and changing environment. Being able to foresee major problems and address and remediate them requires a degree of sequential knowledge re the changing status of these many factors throughout the DSL. That is a very formidable task, especially in a country so vast as Canada.
In the end, it’s all about money and the restrictions of infrastructure budgets. And there will never be enough money to make ideal protocols a reality. But, as I said earlier, we’re getting better and better at being able to offer economically viable solutions, in terms specific properties of the pipe, but also with new approaches, strategies and design innovations to enhance both product durability and performance, new installation and remediation methodologies, etc. Indeed, knowing the extent of our infrastructure assets and their condition, and managing their inspection, remediation and replacement present a major challenge to our industry – one that is key to sustainability.
What we’re talking about here is establishing a system of asset management protocols. In this case, the CSP assets – including bridges, culverts, sewers and others – are ubiquitously peppered throughout both urban and rural sites in the second largest country in the world. And each installation is unique. There are many thousands of installations – some new, some very old and everything in between – and the first important step is to create good database of the location, size, age and type of pipe and installation method used, and the current condition of each one. Simply put, before we can begin to improve the efficacy of asset management, we must first know the location and condition of the assets we need to manage.
But, one also must remember we’re talking about a very wide range of major infrastructure assets here. CSP is used extensively in many sectors, including: agriculture; forestry; highways; mining; natural resources; municipalities; energy; and geotechnical applications.
So, yes, this really is a big deal. That, in turn, makes managing assets of such size and complexity a challenge with a magnitude of the highest order. And of the highest priority. While we won’t make any quantum leaps in progress overnight, in terms of improving our oversight of these assets, as they say, each of life’s longest journeys begin with a first step.
Every year, the CSPI gives a thousand or more new engineers a copy of the Handbook of Steel Drainage and Highway Construction Products, which is a comprehensive source of technical information regarding the use of CSP for infrastructure design and installations. But they are, of course, also welcome to contact us at any stage of their project – from planning, to installing, to follow-up inspections – to discuss any questions or concerns they may have regarding CSP, or for technical or other advice.
Who is responsible for initiating improvements?
Ultimately, the infrastructure owners are responsible… which generally means a government authority, or its agency, charged with managing their infrastructure resources, as well as private or corporate owners of such projects. Canada’s infrastructures have become very, very large and complex and, hence, require a lot of money to maintain, enlarge and improve to serve a growing citizenry. So the primary source of funding comes from taxes – from you and me and every taxpayer in Canada. And, because none of us – including political leaders – wants us to pay more taxes, that leaves us with cost reductions as our only viable economic tool to deliver more value from every tax dollar.
That is precisely where CSP comes into play. As I said at the beginning of this interview, CSP isn’t always the most prudent solution. However, steel does offer more intrinsic value, in terms of the cost/performance equation. In short, it’s strictly a matter of steel being more cost effective and environmentally benign than alternative materials.