Research Magazine 2006

Pipe dreams

Center digs deep to improve underground structures


It’s something we all take for granted: Turn on the tap, and fresh, clean water flows.

But think for a moment about the miles of pipe that bring the water and the additional miles that carry wastewater away. It’s a vast system—2.5 million miles of fresh and wastewater pipes nationally, about 75 percent of it underground.

The maintenance and management of underground infrastructures is a growing problem for local governments, and that’s where UT Arlington’s Center for Underground Infrastructure Research and Education (CUIRE) can help.

CUIRE operates out of the Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. The center was established in 2002 at Michigan State University by Mohammad Najafi, then with Michigan State’s Construction Management Program.

“The program was in the College of Agriculture there, and that provided very few opportunities for collaborations,” he said. “Infrastructure goes way beyond construction management. I needed to interact with civil, mechanical and electrical engineers.”

When Dr. Najafi came to UT Arlington in August 2006, he re-established this research and education hub to address the widespread deterioration of underground infrastructures and their renewal.

“It’s the ‘out of sight, out of mind’ problem,” he said. “The pipes are buried and forgotten, their physical condition is rarely monitored, and they deteriorate just as any other asset.”

The center’s mission is to promote research, development and training in underground infrastructure construction and renewal technologies. This requires a multidisciplinary organization of academic and industrial researchers, design and consulting engineers, manufacturers, contractors, municipalities and government agencies, utility owners and managers, and pipeline professionals.

Najafi says investigators at the center are involved in four primary areas: product research, testing and development; technology transfer and publications; evaluation programs; and outreach and education. Examples include developing tools (geophysical technologies, GPS, GIS, etc.) to locate and inventory underground assets; identifying and quantifying the social costs associated with underground infrastructure construction and renewal; and developing products such as “smart pipes” that have the capability of automatic monitoring.

“I want to eventually see nationally recognized infrastructure codes,” he said, “something similar to those for scheduled aircraft maintenance, where pipelines and conduits would be inspected every four or five years and their histories logged so that their location, size and condition could be accessed easily.”

One of Najafi’s favorite topics is trenchless technologies—the installation or renewal of underground utility systems with minimal disruption of the surface. He wrote a book, Trenchless Technology: Pipeline and Utility Design, Construction and Renewal, that civil engineers, contractors and governmental agencies use extensively.

CUIRE researchers have conducted trenchless projects for the Michigan, Missouri and Ohio departments of transportation.

“They helped us establish standards for using trenchless methods for adding or replacing infrastructure under highways,” said Mark Dionise, utility coordination and permits manager for the Michigan DOT. “CUIRE’s unique collaboration of university, industry and government staff significantly contributed to the success of our research project.”

Engineering and construction firms have consulted with CUIRE researchers on a variety of projects.

“CUIRE has leveraged our efforts on projects by providing an avenue for academic collaboration with industry expertise,” said Terry McArthur, a senior project manager with HDR Engineering in Lincoln, Neb. “The resulting synergy has helped to provide our clients with additional information and choices, which has resulted in better projects.”

Municipalities also benefit from CUIRE programs. Diana Vazquez, engineering operations manager for the City of Arlington, says that three city departments—Community Development and Planning; Water; and Public Works—will use CUIRE-developed programs to evaluate upcoming projects.

“New construction methods will allow us to conduct our operations more efficiently,” she said. “Not only will we reduce annoyances such as traffic disruptions, but they will also keep us from needlessly destroying infrastructure adjacent to the work site.”

Combining technical knowledge and outreach, Najafi conducted short courses on trenchless technologies earlier this year in Houston in conjunction with Underground Construction magazine. This summer he designed and conducted a five-week, graduate-level course on pipeline design and construction that was also open to engineers and practitioners as a workshop.

While infrastructure maintenance is the most visible aspect of CUIRE, system management also plays an important role. System managers must contend with issues related to miles of pipelines, underground reservoirs, drainage structures, manholes, transportation systems, and water and wastewater conveyer systems. The design, construction, operation and maintenance of these assets is a multibillion-dollar operation.

To prepare more graduates to oversee these assets, Najafi designed two areas of study for civil engineering master’s students: construction engineering and construction management. Six core courses cover topics such as construction methods and operations, cost estimating, contracts, planning and scheduling, and productivity.

“We have high hopes that CUIRE will play a vital role in the evaluation, maintenance and installation of underground pipelines in the D/FW Metroplex,” said Nur Yazdani, chairman of the UT Arlington Civil and Environmental Engineering Department. “The Metroplex has a vast network of underground infrastructure, a large portion of which is aging and needs upgrading. CUIRE will provide important services in education, training and research.”

— Roger Tuttle