Colorado Springs — Jack Madore is wearing his never-ending grin. He is standing on a construction site lined with military tanks and a single McElroy fusion machine. He can talk circles around anyone, especially if the topic happens to be high-density polyethylene (HDPE) pipe, but now he is silent. His squinted gaze is locked on the jagged Rocky Mountains that hang as a backdrop over the scene. He is pausing to smell the roses; or perhaps trying to feel the vibration of the pipe that is being pulled underground beneath his feet. The pipe is part of a new HDPE, 20,000-foot, totally fused potable water system for Fort Carson Military Post located on the outskirts of Colorado Springs. That’s what the smile is all about.
Fort Carson is home to 19,000 soldiers and is a community in and of its self. Madore not only supplied the pipe and fusion equipment for the project, he has been the spearhead of an HDPE movement and conversion that is taking hold of the water industry in several areas of Colorado.
Fort Carson is the latest convert after years of six figure maintenance headaches due to the dilapidated condition of its water infrastructure. It was leaking like a sieve and made up of at least five different piping materials. The project is somewhat of an HDPE pilot project for the Corp of Engineers because the country is splattered with military bases that are sitting on top of worn out piping infrastructures.
In most regions of the country, HDPE is only being used for water in difficult applications like horizontal directional drilling under roads and rivers. Not in Colorado. Due to the longest drought in the nations recorded history, virtually every facet of water delivery systems is designed with water conservation in mind. Just five years ago, nobody in the area used HDPE for water, but now Colorado Springs Utilities (CSU) along with nine other communities are embracing the pipe as the ‘way of the future’.
“We’re demonstrating the future of water delivery to the Corp of Engineers and giving them a 50 to 100 year piping system,” said Robert Collupy, Jr. of Vanguard Contractors Inc of Paducah, KY, the prime contractor for the project. “We think they will be impressed enough with HDPE to start installing it on other military installations in the country.”
Having unreliable water pipes is of particular concern for a military post. Water breaks can be more than an inconvenience to a community of people who may be needed to defend the country at a moments notice. Maintenance construction and excavation creates huge obstacles. It is also the reason 90% of the project is utilizing Horizontal Directional Drilling (HDD). The idea of having long open trenches that could hamper mobility of troops and equipment is a safety concern. Administration at the post knows the maintenance free aspects of the pipe will not only eliminate the chance of unplanned construction, it will make the system attractive to CSU and their hope is that the water company will annex the Military Post into its system.
The financial bottom line of HDPE is the same color as the pipe — black
Madore works for Mountain States Pipe and Supply, a full water house in Colorado Springs with a long-standing relationship with CSU. They introduced CSU to the idea of using HDPE for water and helped them combine their gas and water utilities construction and maintenance divisions into a single department. The strategy was to better organize maintenance and construction under one department with HDPE as the common thread. It’s paying off.
CSU was not only lured to HDPE by the desire to be good stewards of their water; it’s also about the money. CSU is a privately held water company and claims millions in savings due to trenchless construction methods over the last five years. They also consider HDPE a tremendous investment for their bottom line.
“The financial bottom line of HDPE is the same color as the pipe – black,” says Madore. It’s a logical conclusion. If a water company can get paid on 100% of the water it delivers without loosing any through leaks, it can operate in the black instead of the red.
This is the leak-free message coming from the HDPE industry but the majority of water municipalities have been slow to change from traditional methods and materials. Most civil engineers are quick to note that by laying a new DI or PVC pipeline, a practically leak free system can be achieved as well. It is the “new” that is the important bit. And Madore points out that the big savings comes from not having leaks and huge maintenance expenses over the next 50 to 100 years. “The best argument for HDPE is that it will not suffer an increase in leakage in the future,” says Madore. “Mechanical joints will start to experience problems, sometimes in the first few years, and these troubles grow as the system ages. Most water companies operating today have an enormous maintenance budget. These expenses will decrease as HDPE is installed and will eventually be eliminated with the exception of third party damage.”
There is no question that there is financial payback in using a leak-free system. But the long-term life-cycle cost savings is a tough sell to most municipalities who are fighting for every scrap of the yearly budget and are pressured to show returns on a much shorter timescale. Another reason most water companies are not jumping on the HDPE bandwagon is the view that upfront costs associated with HDPE are higher due to the expense of fusion equipment and training. And although these expenses are real, Madore says they can be erased quickly by the often dramatic savings that can be reaped by lowered installation costs and operating costs even over a short time period.
For instance, according to the Water Resource Council, which is responsible for all of the Water Industry Standards in the UK, they have determined that HDPE pipe systems always have the lowest installed cost in sizes up to 315mm (12-inches). When considering trenchless applications, the savings are even greater. A recent job in Arizona by the Central Arizona Project discovered that HDPE was $125,000 less than other materials. They didn’t know this in the beginning because HDPE was not one of the pipe options available on the bid application. The winning contractor offered the HDPE savings only after securing the bid with a material other than HDPE. The pipeline is a gravity line including 24 through 63-inch diameter pipe. A growing number of success stories are starting to make the water industry wake up and smell the money, but the upfront costs and extra work associated with HDPE seems to trump long-term savings and water conservation.
For an engineer to recommend HDPE means having to rewrite specifications, buy fusion equipment, train employees, stock new fittings and take on a brand new educational venture. All involved, the idea of changing piping material is the biggest decision an engineer may make in his career. It also carries a high risk for the engineer who had the “bright idea,” to try something “new”. He may feel that his head is on the proverbial chopping block while there is almost no personal reward for taking the huge step. Engineers are not paid exponentially on the amount of money and water they save the city. The attitude many times is that it is better to err on the side caution.
“Most municipalities have piping infrastructure that is old and worn out so they use crisis management to deal with it,” said Jim Rose, Project Manager of Glacier Construction the subcontractor for the Fort Carson project. Glacier specializes in building total water and wastewater infrastructure including treatment plants, pipeline infrastructure. “Municipalities are so busy fixing leaks, it is hard to develop a plan to prevent maintenance and water loss. HDPE is becoming that plan and starting to affect water transportation the way PVC had a huge impact on plumbing,” he said.
Madore understands the high-risk mindset of an engineer considering the switch to HDPE and tries to eliminate the fear-factor. That is where his 20 years of experience and knowledge of all water pipeline systems comes in to play. He believes the HDPE industry is maturing and those upfront concerns are starting to fade. It’s making his job easier. “Engineers are more comfortable after hearing that they are not the first ones to use HDPE and that it’s not rocket science,” said Madore, who points to the gas industry that has a 30-year history with HDPE and almost exclusively uses the pipe today. “If I had come to water companies and bragged that HDPE is corrosion resistant, leak free and flexible, without showing them the bottom line savings, or insuring them that it’s been done before – I would have been run out of town on a rail,” he says.
Madore also feels it is important, especially with pilot projects, to be at the jobsite on a regular basis. He also prefers to recommend contractors he has worked with before. And since the contractors for Fort Carson job determined that they wanted to bore as much of the project as possible, Madore introduced them to longtime directional drilling expert Brett Gleeson. Gleeson owns BDG Directional Drilling based in Colorado Springs and has been involved with CSU polyethylene projects since the beginning of its conversion.
“It’s a very forgiving material to work with,” said Gleeson about HDPE. “I’ve pulled other kinds of pipe, but HDPE is tougher than a two dollar steak and the only kind of pipe that gives me the flexibility to steer around or over almost any obstacle.”
Most water systems operate in the 65 to 110-PSI range. Since the Colorado Springs area gets its water from high in the Rocky Mountains, their system receives a lot of head pressure. The Corp of Engineers decided to use HDPE DR9 due to the 130 to 200-PSI operating pressures it will experience.
“We’re bringing Fort Carson’s water system into the 21 st Century,” said Madore. “We have the most technologically advanced military in the world and now the system that handles their water is also on that level.” One of the unique aspects of the project is that when finished, it will be a completely fused, closed loop system made entirely of HDPE. Even in areas where HDPE is readily accepted, most water companies just use it for transmission lines. For this project, service lines up to the buildings will also be HDPE. By having no mechanical joints, all of the possible leak paths will be eliminated.
“There is no other business that can afford to operate with a 20% loss from the start,” says Madore, indicating that the average water company looses 20% of its water through leaky infrastructure. “It makes sense to conserve water from an environmental and financial perspective.” Madore also believes that high-profile water jobs, particularly the ones by Government agencies, ultimately make him more persuasive. “The Corp of Engineers is full of very bright people who do their homework and understand that the economics of an HDPE water system are strong: The pipelines pay off in financial terms,” he says. “I think this is causing other engineers to realize that they’re not taking a leap of faith when they try a pilot project using HDPE. They’re taking a leap to protect water for the future generations of their community.”