Are You Letting The Covid Crisis Go To Waste?

Dean Wheeler, partner at management consultancy firm Reson8, says the pandemic has given water and wastewater asset managers a chance to think about maintenance differently and move to a ‘less is more’ approach.

Cast your mind back to pre-pandemic times – the volume of maintenance work for the water industry was a story of backlogs, high levels of reactive demand and not enough technicians available. Planning and scheduling teams were trying to balance demand with patchy data and often erroneous information.

Once the pandemic hit, there was an instant loss of capacity in an already overstretched workforce. Initial confusion around key worker status, shielding and isolation as well as how crews should socially distance in the cab of a vehicle resulted in reduced resource availability.

Teams scrabbling to cover larger geographical areas increased their travel time leading to an even shorter window of time to complete their jobs and tasks. Add increased health and safety requirements into the mix and the delays mount further. This made an already difficult situation much harder.

Surely this resulted in a sudden and widespread deterioration in the asset base? Actually no.

The big Covid experiment

The unexpected global health crisis led to the lowest number of site visits and maintenance interventions on the network for many, many years. In fact, so unusual was the situation it was possible to see what would actually happen if there was a significant reduction in:

  • Maintenance

  • Project work

  • Reduced site inspection tours

Bizarre as it may sound, the answer for many water companies was improved performance from increased stability and reliability.

Water companies saw increases in the number of jobs completed per day by their maintenance crews. With site process performance stabilising at the same time. This was despite teams covering larger areas to make up for absences. Could this mean that in some way our interventions are harming the operations?

If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

In the early days of the pandemic many organisations shifted to prioritising reactive activities over preventative activity, fixing broken assets first to protect service. This has given us unique insight into the effectiveness of maintenance schedules.

Within the industry, preventative time-based maintenance regimes are often used to maintain asset condition. A predefined schedule is usually designed based on manufacturers recommended frequency and what the company can afford. This can result in an intervention on the assets when it’s not needed, and this intervention itself may increase the risk to the asset/process and result in failure.

Think about it this way. Undertaking invasive maintenance on a pump and checking the impeller is in good condition before putting it back together may be adding risk. What happens if it is put back together incorrectly and the seal fails, or a cable is damaged? The effort used to increase reliability may have introduced new risks that outweigh the benefits.

A new way forward

Many industries have moved away from time-based preventative maintenance strategies as they are simply too expensive and can introduce risk. Is it time the water industry considered a change?

Condition-based maintenance is an example of a strategy which uses specific condition-based data to determine when a maintenance intervention is required, rather than a theoretical plan. Using readily available, simple, low-cost technology, thanks to the rise of the industrial internet of things (IIOT) we can, for example, measure the pass forward flow of a pump to assess when its conditional has deteriorated. Suppose a maintenance intervention only takes place when deterioration is detected. In that case, there will be a step-change in the efficiency of scarce maintenance resources.

How often, if ever, do we have the chance to ask ourselves ‘will a massive reduction in maintenance result in an increase in asset failures’? If the answer is no, now is the time to consider if you have the right asset strategies in place to exploit new technology and low-cost automation to enable condition-based maintenance.

Learning the lessons from “calm Covid”

As we emerge from lockdown, we should take a moment to learn the lessons of the ‘calm’ of Covid. It is not only the assets that benefit from being left alone. Think about how to respect the time and attention of the frontline teams, so they are not ‘over-managed’ or distracted from the work they need to do.

A new way of working, and one that reduces risk, could be the big positive to come out of this year. But only if we read the signs, and seize this moment by taking bold action.

This article was first published in Utility Week in November 2020