Infrastructure Asset Management Insights from David Totman

Infrastructure Asset Management Insights from David Totman

When it comes to water infrastructure asset management, David Totman has done it all. He’s been the Asset Manager for Colorado Springs Utilities, one of the largest municipally owned four-service utilities in America. He’s managed the Global Water Industry team at Esri. Currently, he serves as Director of Asset Management at Innovyze, President of the Utility Engineering and Surveying Institute at the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) and a member of the American Water Works Association. In this interview, he discusses what contractors and legislators can be doing to improve infrastructure asset management and how data and technology are revolutionizing the industry.

In the context of water infrastructure, what is asset management?

When I think about asset management, I often go back to one of the original definitions from the International Infrastructure Management Manual (IIMM). According to the IIMM, asset management is, “the combination of management, financial, economic, engineering and other practices applied to physical assets with the objective of providing the required level of service in the most cost-effective manner.”

That’s an academic way to describe applying a defined standard of service and a whole-life cost approach to physical infrastructure to achieve financial, social and environmental sustainability. Asset management boils down to understanding the cause and effect between your inventory (assets) and events (work orders). It means asking “Why does this asset have to be repaired now?”

Why is water infrastructure important?

Water and sewer infrastructures are the foundation of basic human life, the building blocks of any society. Distributing clean, safe drinking water, collecting sanitary sewer effluent and diverting storm water runoff are the tenants of protecting public safety and health. Water infrastructure is literally a matter of life and death.

When you first started your career, what did your work look like? How were you managing assets?

When I became the Manager of Asset Management for Colorado Springs Utilities, I took an engineer’s objective approach. I used the best technology. I applied all the best practices from the IIMM. I developed risk profiles and calculated deterioration curves and useful life. I was proud of developing a capital project need of replacing $152 million in aging cast iron pipe. The logic was sound, the science was impeccable, and so of course, the money would come. It had to. Then reality set in. My Chief Financial Officer said I could have $8 million per year. That’s it. This was the first time I realized that we were on a fixed income and I needed to take reality into account.

You were formerly with Esri. How has their geographic information system (GIS) mapping technology improved asset management?

Oh gosh, tremendously! Everything begins with the asset registry—knowing what you have and where it is non-negotiable for any linear asset management program. Two pipes of the same diameter, material and length will perform, behave and last significantly differently based upon their location and environment. Failure is often a spatial problem due to corrosive soils, dynamic loading conditions, system operating pressures and other environmental conditions.

(Note: David developed a white paper detailing GIS mapping technology’s role in Asset management. Click here to download.)

How will smart sensors and the internet of things (IoT) impact asset management?

 A key deliverable of asset management is an understanding of future need. We use science, engineering and mathematical analysis to predict the future. That’s our proverbial crystal ball. Even with no specific data, we can use surrogate information to develop a virtual, modeled understanding.  However, this alone is not advisable. We require real data to calibrate our understanding. The more data, the better. The timelier data, the better. Smart sensors and the IoT provide us comprehensive, real-time information that is valuable from an operational perspective.

The ASCE’s latest report card gave U.S. infrastructure a D+, including a D for drinking water and a D+ for wastewater. Can you give a brief explanation of why American water infrastructure scored so poorly?

Many, many factors contribute to that grade. Our industry did their job too well in the early days. The infrastructure was built with pride and was expected to serve for a hundred years. Once buried, those assets were virtually forgotten.

Today, useful life is falling short of original depreciation schedules and the cost of service has long been undervalued—rate structures have never really covered replacement costs. At my own utility, when the economy was great and new construction was booming, our tap fees helped cover costs. When the economy turned back, we quickly realized our rates barely covered operating costs. Unfortunately, the public has virtually no insight into the costs of treatment, transmission and distribution infrastructure to get water to their tap. All of this points to low investment strategies for replacing aging infrastructure.

What is the ASCE doing to improve U.S. utility infrastructure?

ASCE by itself cannot physically improve the infrastructure. What we can do, and what we are doing, is educating everyone on infrastructure challenges. We are looking inward, teaching civil engineers about full life cycle costs and how to use innovative technology to reduce project costs.

We hold public programs to help consumers understand infrastructure costs in hopes people will start approving rate increases to fund the infrastructure gap. We also engage Congress to help them understand the need for Federal and State programs to aid local communities.

What could the construction industry be doing better as it relates to water infrastructure?

Data, data, data. Some project designs are difficult to construct, and once constructed, difficult to maintain. Adjustments are constantly being made and information is lost in the process. Most notably, extremely valuable construction data, deviations from design, field notes and markups are never forwarded to the utility owner/operator at the time of the as-built. This is partly a technology issue, partly a data exchange issue and partly a lack of understanding about why this information needs to flow downhill. With respect to premature infrastructure failure, the root cause can often be traced to material defects and/or improper construction methods. Sometimes the data that survives the process is based on old standards, gut feelings and decades-old cost data. If we had better data, we might avoid some problems.

What could cities and other local governments be doing better as it relates to water infrastructure?

Again: data, data, data. Local governments need reliable data in all aspects of the infrastructure life cycle; from planning to design to construction to operations and maintenance to rehabilitation, replacement and retirement. They can also help the ASCE with respect to educational programs. Some folks think the Infrastructure Report Card is a broken record—that it’s a bit Chicken Little. Let me assure you, it is not. The actual grade may vary here and there based on the availability of accurate data but responding to the challenge of aging infrastructure is a community effort.

What technology and data will be necessary to improve U.S. infrastructure?

Innovations in data collection and mapping for asset positioning and analytics for operational performance are setting the stage for a new understanding. 3-D visualizations are becoming the norm.  Elevation is critical in determining conflict resolution for subsurface infrastructure and technologies like LiDAR for above ground and Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) for subsurface use are more accurate than ever. Even drone technology for project management captures daily construction activities.

With respect to IoT and smart infrastructure, real-time data analytics immediately show asset performance and possible threshold alerts. Trending over time allows us to better understand pressure management, energy consumption, water loss and other factors to create more sustainable infrastructure management. Computerized Maintenance Management Systems (CMMS) are becoming common in utilities and these programs are bringing clarity to the crystal ball I mentioned before. Just like SCADA data can help calibrate hydraulic models, CMMS work orders help us calibrate asset performance and risk models.

Machine learning and Artificial Intelligence are great at highlighting data patterns humans cannot recognize, but they are not the end-all solution. Asset management has matured over the years; from reactive to preventive to predictive. My personal involvement is in building prescriptive asset management tools that not only predict when and where an asset will fail but will tell you what to fix, who should fix it and how much it will cost. All this helps people on the ground justify why they are spending money. With respect to justifying the spend, having accurate and timely cost information is critical. Unfortunately, many utilities use legacy cost data based on old projects and have rarely updated them to today’s market rates, let alone adjusting for future projected costs. I am really excited to see RSMeans data being delivered through an API. It’s perfect for integrating “real-time” cost data into these prescriptive estimates.

“I am really excited to see RSMeans data being delivered through an API. It’s perfect for integrating “real-time” cost data into these prescriptive estimates.”

David Totman, Director of Asset Management, Innovyze


You’ll be on a panel at the Government Finance Officers Association (GFOA) Annual Conference. What can attendees look forward to?

The Mayor’s office of Washington, D.C., has been quite innovative with respect to infrastructure investment and public-private partnerships. On the utility side, D.C. Water has achieved the unprecedented Century Bond for funding its combined sewer infrastructure. As President of the Utility Engineering and Surveying Institute (UESI), where the Asset Management Division is housed, I have the honor of representing the ASCE on the panel, discussing the ASCE Grand Challenge and highlighting Life Cycle Cost Analysis. Plus, I get to tee up the conversation for the D.C. Finance Office to share their successful infrastructure investments.

What do you like about your work? Why do you do what you do?

I guess once a city worker, always a city worker—I say that with pride. Municipal utility and public works professionals truly want to serve their community. As the Director of Asset Management for Innovyze, a software provider of innovative water solutions, we empower our customers to serve their communities better.

I started in asset management during the era where all we had were paper standards and traditional computer systems. We had to craft tools from scratch compared to today’s tool sets. Today I get to drive strategic direction for a solution that embodies all I have worked for. I take this mentality into my office as UESI President as well. My mission is to build a comprehensive understanding of the latest asset management methods in civil engineering.