WINTER 2013/2014

Everybody loves a good mystery. Really?

Posted on December 6, 2013

by Scott Goss

One of the things I like about utility coordination work is the investigation aspect. It’s kind of an interesting mash up of information exchange, intelligence collection, archeological research, cultural history analysis and detective work. Seems there’s always an endless supply of the unknown to deal with. Of course, from a risk management standpoint, owners, designers and constructors really don’t appreciate mysteries showing up on their construction schedule. Here’s a latest case in point.

Sure enough, just as we started into the early EBSP (Elliott Bay Seawall Project) construction work this past week, we dug up a mystery. No one could pinpoint why it existed or what it connected to, but there it was at the bottom of the pothole – what appeared to be a black, 15-inch, PVC pipe. Copious amounts of records research, field investigation and dedicated SUE during design failed to indicate the presence of such an item. The coordinated conclusion was “an abandoned casing for an old utility under the railroad that used to be here”. Sections of the tracks are still nearby and this pipe lies perpendicular to those tracks.

This was no big shock. A reliable constant in utility coordination work on a complex project is to expect the unexpected once the digging begins. The issue is how the situation is dealt with – a big part of why we rely upon our keys for success. In this case, we applied years of experience and (we hope) some common sense, conferred with the construction inspectors, construction managers and our contractor, and came to the collectively expedited decision that since the pipe was several feet deeper than the temporary item being built, it would be fine to make note of it and leave it be. It doesn’t appear to represent a potential impact to EBSP work and our work doesn’t threaten it. This isn’t to say that I don’t feel the burning need to know precisely what everything is inside the limits of “my” project. It’s just that, keeping ROI in mind, we’re leaving it in the unsolved mystery bucket – at least for now.

A Different Kind Of Seattle Boat Tour

Posted on December 20, 2013

by Scott Goss

Last week I took a boat ride along the Seattle waterfront. I’ve done that before but this time it was a little different. It wasn’t a warm, sunny August day in Seattle, it was grey December with the temperature not too far above freezing. Instead of lazing through an enjoyable sightseeing jaunt, we slid beneath piers and tediously wound through forests of pilings, peering into the shadows.

What I’m describing was another step in the ever so detailed utility coordination process for the Elliott Bay Seawall Project (EBSP). This time it involved a meticulous visual survey to identify and document any previously unidentified utility features directly attached to the seawall itself. Along much of the structure, the only way to get a better view is to get in a boat and do a direct inspection.

As EBSP construction ramps up, our job as utility coordinator is to stay ahead of the action. Time and money are absolutely key resources and neither can be wasted. To maintain the construction schedule, timely, well-sequenced utility handling is the order of the day. Although we generated mountains of information about existing features during design, it’s necessary to drive the process down another level to eliminate as many last minute scrambles as we can. To accomplish that, it’s critical for us to pay attention to details, be flexible and adapt quickly – hey, that sounds suspiciously like the second of our keys for success!

So, we are identifying any wires, cables, conduits, fixtures and other attached hardware that will be threatened by construction, then developing strategies to deal with them. I gathered a large amount of data in the form of notes, images and video. This will all be digitally catalogued, indexed and correlated to the construction documents. We’ll refer to this source in utility coordination meetings and in our daily work with the contractor, construction manager and SDOT.

We triage the investigation to focus on the earliest wall demolition and temporary utility construction. This means we’ll be heading down under the piers several more times to get everything identified in advance of construction. One of the peculiar aspects of this situation is that although an item may be easy to see from water level, it doesn’t necessarily mean one can easily recognize what it is or who owns and manages it.

Tracking these things can be like following little rabbit trails. It’s going to require following wires, pipes and conduits onto private property under piers to figure out what they are. We’ve done a lot of this in the past, but this project presents something of a mother lode.

Pumpkin Pi(pe) for New Years?

Posted on January 17, 2014

by Scott Goss

I have seen a lot of things get broken over the years; fire hydrants spouting geysers of water into the air, 20-inch water mains flooding whole neighborhoods, force mains spewing raw sewage, even whole bridges knocked off their foundations.  Repairs, repairs, repairs!  Earlier this month on construction for the Elliott Bay Seawall Project (EBSP), I had the opportunity to get a close up view on a type of repair I had not witnessed before.

A small leak developed in a nearly 60 year old gas main. The repair crew got right on it, excavated the main, and installed a clamp. Pretty standard stuff. Then came the interesting bit, at least for me.  The next step was to install a steel casing over the clamp, referred to in the American Gas Association glossary as a “pumpkin”.  A pumpkin is a field-fabricated steel sleeve that fully covers the clamp and is welded directly to the steel gas main. This way, the repair is reinforced and if the clamp leaks, which is always possible for a repair relying on some bolts and gaskets, the pumpkin helps with containment. Looks big and lumpy, hence the name – the same term is often used to refer to the housing of a vehicle differential.

The repair crew said this was an easy one on a straight section of pipe and sometimes they do the same thing to encase a tee, which is a tricky shape (think differential) to fabricate while down in a hole.  They finished it up and it looked good.  With some backfill and a patch on the road, odds are nobody will ever again see this repair.  Always interesting to see something new.

Seeing this all take place made me wonder about how much natural gas escapes from pipelines in the U.S. every year.  Check out this Scientific American post from August 2013.

Aging infrastructure is a huge challenge. We have to be willing to invest, or see the golden infrastructure “carriage” that makes our quality of life possible revert back into the proverbial pumpkin.

Heading off construction delay with a kayak.

Posted on February 27, 2014

by Scott Goss

Here’s a bit of an update and a few thoughts on some of the seawall utility coordination. The Elliott Bay Seawall Project (EBSP) is a very complex piece of construction with the most challenging schedule I’ve been involved with in over twenty-five years of work in infrastructure development. During the value-engineering phase of the project, utility-related delay was identified as a primary schedule risk.

When it comes to avoiding unplanned utility-related delay and cost, of course, the big pipes and conduits get the most attention first because they are obvious and usually seem to pose the biggest concerns. For example, the major pipes providing water supply for fire protection are easy to spot and to protect or relocate. So is the power supply to the fire pumps and main electrical panel. But it’s not just the big stuff that matters. How about that little conduit with the telemetry wire that actually turns on the fire pumps? If it’s simply yanked out during demolition, there goes the fire protection.

So, although the major utility elements were dealt with during design, the next step, as EBSP demolition begins, is to identify and track down all of the existing wires, cables, pipes and conduits running along – often attached to – the seawall itself. There’s a spider’s web of this stuff that belongs to either the utility agencies and purveyors or to the private property owners along the waterfront.

The first step is a painstaking visual inspection from the water side when the tide is right (kayaking skills necessary), documenting with notes, photos and video. One thing is for sure, when you can’t see the ends of the conduit or pipe, you can’t tell if it’s empty. Sometimes there’s an open junction box or conduit. Empty conduits go in the “easy” column. When there is a wire, or many wires, we have to track things down. So, I’m paddling along under piers, opening handholes and vaults, looking in electrical rooms and reviewing old designs and as-builts. It can be some relatively intensive detective work to figure out what everything is and then what should happen with it during construction and beyond.

It’s a particular challenge when these bits and pieces run from private property into the right of way then back onto private property. Everything like that has to relocate to accommodate the excavation and structure for the new seawall. This means finding not just the property owner but maybe also their building superintendent, plumber, electrician, IT expert – the list goes on. For old commercial properties, records may be poor or nonexistent and distant memory the only point of reference.

The purpose behind all this meticulous work is to do what’s reasonably possible within the constraint of the utility coordination budget to prevent delays in construction. Taking care of what appear to be insignificant utility details in advance is a small investment compared to the real-time cost of a construction crew grinding to a standstill while it waits for answers and action. A day’s time on this project costs somewhere in the range of $30,000 – it’s not pocket change. What’s worse, the construction windows are so utterly tight that even a brief disruption at the wrong time could mean missing a critical path completion milestone. This all falls squarely into the pay me now or pay me later category.


 SPRING 2014



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