Rehabilitation contract is on target and on time
Bringing the water mains of half Devon and the whole of Cornwall kicking and screaming into the 21st century could have been a headache but, with some innovative technical and public relations approaches, it has been a job well done.
The ten-year contract has seen substantial improvements in customer service, the successful implementation of some brand new technology and impressive environmental improvements. It has won awards, set records, and achieved some all-time best figures for health and safety. Most importantly, it has improved the quality of drinking water for hundreds of thousands of people.
The contract, which began in 2000, required May Gurney to rehabilitate about 2,000km of water mains across South Devon, Plymouth and Cornwall, with annual targets of up to 350km per year at its peak. The company is now well into the final 100m of the contract, and is on target for the scheduled completion at the end of this year.
Many kilometres of pipes had been in the ground for more than a century, or had been laid after World War II, when good quality materials were in short supply. As a result, samples taken at customers' taps across the region in 1995 showed 253 failures of water quality standards, which were attributed to the condition of the distribution network.
In 2008 however, nine years into the rehabilitation contract, the same sampling produced only four failures, demonstrating the fundamental success of the main objective.
To achieve this success though, the water company knew that many miles of main roads, shopping streets and even local residents' back gardens would need to be excavated, which meant a high risk of incoming customer complaints, as well as the likelihood of negative media coverage from local newspapers, TV and radio.
Ben Bax, May Gurney's customer and client services manager, explains: "Water companies are under increasing pressure to deliver excellent customer service, driven by Ofwats's new Customer Experience Measures and by customers expecting value for money for their water and sewerage charges. With that they want uninterrupted services and they want to see any necessary work carried out professionally and efficiently."
He continues: "It is important that customer service is not just about systems and procedures, nor is it an 'extra' job; it is rooted in May Gurney's ethos and company culture. Everyone from management to on-site labourers fully understands the implications of the essential services we deliver for local communities, businesses and people."
Indeed, May Gurney not only reduced written complaints by 45% and telephone complaints by 25% in just one year (both far ahead of target), but even received letters of commendation and thanks from local residents and businesses.
Bax is justifiably proud of this achievement: "Many of our works, for example 800m of water main in the town of Bodmin and a similar stretch in the Barbican in Plymouth, drew much apprehension from local residents and the press before digging had even begun.
"But we implemented simple, tangible actions not only to set people's minds at ease, but also to achieve genuine reductions in disruption. Firstly, each local project team included a Customer Liaison Officer (CLO). We met with community stakeholders and the local media before each scheme, and came up with appropriate solutions to each potential problem with which we were faced.
"In one local community, for example, our CLO Callum McNab worked with an hotelier to solve the problem of expensive mains water-fed cookers, and even personally visited an elderly resident every day to help with carrying her temporary water containers. In Bodmin, meanwhile, we had a team working seven-day weeks during a school holiday, and fitting their hours around the comings and goings of residents. To overcome the temporary lack of access for disabled shoppers, we arranged for disability scooters to be available, and provided a trained attendant to assist."
Plymouth, on the other hand, presented challenges of its own. Here, local residents were worried about the disturbance of the rare and extremely high-quality pavement flagstones for which the Barbican area is well known. May Gurney went to great lengths to source the closest possible match, so that after work was completed the street could be re-laid faithfully to its original state.
This dedication to delivering the best possible customer service led May Gurney to explore and effectively introduce cutting-edge techniques and equipment. Knowing that common methods of rehabilitating water mains would in some cases involve extensive disruptions to traffic, and in others would not be possible at all, the engineers had to come up with trenchless methods of accessing the old mains.
Where possible, slip-lining technology allowed for a quick and easy means of inserting a new, clean pipe straight inside the existing cast iron one.
In 2005, May Gurney achieved the record for the longest push at Mutley Plain, a busy main road in Plymouth. Here, had the road needed to be closed for the works, a major commuting route would have been unacceptably disrupted, so instead 816m of 400mm pipe was pushed into the main from one single excavation.
On some occasions, however, slip-lining would not have been possible, as the insertion of a new inner pipe would have meant too much reduction in the diameter of the pipe. In these cases, the pipes would have to be re-coated with a new lining, and in this field too, May Gurney and SWW broke new ground with the introduction of a new technology.
In 2000, very much the infancy of this mains rehab programme, the common method was to reline pipes with epoxy resin - an effective but lengthy process that left customers without water for around 36 hours while the resin cured. May Gurney trialled and proved a radical new alternative in the form of a rapid-setting polymeric (PU) lining, which allowed customers to be re-supplied in just half an hour.
As a result of this remarkable reduction in process time, by 2001 PU had become May Gurney and SWW's principal lining material, used in pipes of anywhere between 76mm and 914mm in diameter.
Later, a further development in PU technology proved its worth in the form of "high build" PU lining. Where a pipe is still intact but its structural integrity is in question, a standard PU lining would not be strong enough, while pipe-bursting methods would involve extensive and disruptive excavations.
In Bodmin, exactly such a scenario presented itself. The solution was to apply a 3mm thick sprayed PU lining with high build properties, which make it flexible and semi-structural. The result was that the project timescale was reduced from 20 weeks to just five, as well as a significant reduction both in the amount of digging required, and the quantity of materials needed.
Elsewhere, where pipe-bursting was in fact necessary, further challenges were faced. One such case was in Treneere on the outskirts of Penzance.
Here, the majority of the 3,500m of mains ran through the back gardens of 600 houses, so not only did May Gurney's team have to tread carefully to preserve or restore people's flower beds and lawns, but they also faced the more immediate problem of access.
Brendan Trays, May Gurney's project manager for this scheme, explains: "Sometimes the areas we had to work in were no bigger than 1m2. The usual pipe-bursting kits would neither have been manoeuvrable down the passages between the houses, nor could they have operated in these spaces.
"Our solution was to create our own customised collapsible pipe-bursting kit, based on a small piece of equipment designed for sewer replacement, but with our own design of splitting head that had to be specially created to break through cast iron water mains."
South West Water's Clive Dumbleton adds: "Without this innovative device the only other method would have been to 'open trench' in the road at the front and employ a plumber to transfer each individual service from the back to the front of the property.
"This would have been extremely costly and taken considerably longer. The pipe-bursting system adopted by May Gurney has saved time and money and enabled work to proceed with minimal disruption to our customers."
So successful was this new pipe-bursting equipment that it prompted a letter from the local residents' committee, thanking May Gurney for the reinstatement of both their gardens and public areas.
Tim Read, May Gurney's managing director for utility services, is delighted with the overall performance of the ten-year contract. He says: "The work done by our teams across the region has not only attracted praise from South West Water and from many local stakeholders, but has also set a new benchmark for health and safety. We have halved our accident frequency rate in the past year alone, bringing it to less than half the industry average."
For the remainder of this contract and in preparation for further mains rehab work elsewhere, May Gurney continues to seek out and pioneer new techniques. The latest device being trialled is the Whirlwind cleaning machine, which blasts air and aggregate through old pipes to remove hard scale before they are coated with the spray lining. This has already proved to complete a job in four minutes that had previously taken four hours.
Also, having recently completed its first 'waste-neutral' project for SWW, May Gurney is aiming to roll out this concept for its future work. The re-use on site of as much excavated material as possible has already shown both monetary and environmental benefits, and will be yet another contributing factor towards the company's enviable water rehabilitation credentials.
The success of May Gurney's work on this contract has seen it win a number of awards including a Green Apple Award and Considerate Constructors Award, as well as being shortlisted (at time of writing) for a Water Industry Achievement Award.
In addition to this, May Gurney has won several of SWW's own Pure Awards, including the Pure Service Award. Speaking about this particular accolade, Chris Loughlin, South West Water's chief executive, says: "This award reflects May Gurney's commitment to good customer service - with their focus on delivering consistently good service within our business."