6 Steps to Maximize Your Utility Asset Management Program

Natural gas distribution networks are varied and geographically dispersed. Any structure, machine, tool, or device that supports the delivery of gas to consumers can be considered an asset.

Most gas utilities focus solely on the distribution portion of the natural gas life cycle. This means that most gas utility networks include some combination of the following:

  • Mainlines
  • LNG storage
  • Laterals
  • Utility underground storage
  • Meters
  • City gate

Monitoring and maintaining every asset within the network is no easy job. This is where asset management programs come into play.

Effective asset management increases asset lifespan, minimizes breakdowns, and helps utilities avoid network disruptions. The end goal is to maximize the lifespan and value of every asset in the network.

From assessing current practices, to developing a comprehensive plan for maintenance, renewal, and repair - this guide is your first step towards a more effective asset management program.

1. Audit and assess current asset management practices

two engineers inspecting natural gas infrastructure

Though the specifics may differ between organizations, all utilities have procedures for monitoring and maintaining their asset network. Auditing and assessing these existing practices is step one.

Questions to ask include:

  • What are the current standard operating procedures?
  • Who are the stakeholders?
  • What’s working? What’s not?

Taking the time to understand current asset management practices is important.

What you find here will act as a foundation for the rest of the process. It will help you identify strengths, weaknesses, and systematic gaps.

You’ll work more efficiently, avoid redundancy, and be able to prescribe truly useful programmatic shifts.

Your audit will be the foundation for the rest of the process.

2. Identify goals and align with larger utility objectives

natural gas utility infrastructure

Developing clear, actionable goals is crucial to the success of any project. Asset management is no different.

Asset networks are complex. They have many moving parts and are spread across vast geographical areas. Without well-defined goals, it’s easy for an initiative to get off track and lose steam.

One of the most common and effective goal setting strategies is defined by the acronym: SMART.

SPECIFIC - Your goal is detailed and can be expressed clearly

MEASURABLE - It is quantifiable. You can set up milestones in order to track progress.

ATTAINABLE - Your goal is realistic. You have access to the necessary resources.

RELEVANT - Your goal is aligned to larger utility objectives.

TIME BASED - There is a clear timeline for ideal completion.

Considering these components will help you develop impactful, yet attainable objectives.

Be sure to consider the R - relevancy - when creating your goals. In this case, relevancy means aligning your program goals to larger utility objectives.

When your goals are aligned, it’s easier to make a business case for your initiatives - which is important for securing resources and funding. Ultimately, aligning program goals to utility objectives will increase the odds that your initiative succeeds.

3. Develop a clear action plan with key performance indicators

a natural gas pipeline installed in a remote location

With your objectives defined, it’s time to break down each one into clear, manageable steps. This is where the process can begin to feel a little overwhelming. Now you’re getting into the question of how. How will we make this initiative succeed?

One good strategy is to begin with the end in mind. Start at your objective and work backwards. What resources, funds, and people are necessary to make that objective a reality?

Defining key performance indicators (KPIs) is another important component. Good KPIs will help you track progress and define program success.

They will also help support your business case. If you can’t explain to leadership how you plan to measure your program’s success, it’ll be much harder to secure executive support.

4. Integrate data management systems

an engineer creating an asset management plan

All utilities have a varied set of information management systems. These tools help streamline operations around asset maintenance, documentation, data management, procurement, and more.

Integrating these systems can increase efficiency throughout the organization. However, depending on the system, integration can be quite difficult. Different systems use different data formats, and each system has its own requirements for import and export.

Many of these legacy systems are built on more traditional software frameworks. They are installed locally on a single computer. As such, they can only be accessed on that one device.

Cloud software is one potential solution.

With a data agnostic cloud platform - like Mobile GIS - linking different information systems becomes simpler. Cloud platforms often offer more flexibility for importing and exporting different data types. In practical terms, this means you could import data from one information system and then export in a completely different format.

Integrating information systems can be complex. However, if you pull it off you’ll remove information bottlenecks, increase efficiency, and make better informed decisions.

5. Develop an accurate inventory

a natural gas pipeline stretching across a landscape

An accurate inventory is invaluable for effective asset management. Your first step is to find the location and type of every asset within your network. Then, add as many details as possible to each individual asset.

Asset specific information can include condition, size, construction materials, installation date, date of last inspection, outstanding issues, and estimates on remaining lifespan.

You should also compile data about asset costs. This will help you to evaluate bottom line cost metrics for the network as a whole. Data to record here includes cost of asset acquisition, maintenance, refurbishment, and parts replacement.

The end goal of an asset inventory is to create a comprehensive database of all your network assets. Once complete, you’ll be able to see an asset’s history, schedule reminders for maintenance, and assess remaining service life.

Asset Inventory Checklist

A. Asset type

B. General information

  • Size
  • Construction materials
  • Location

C. Asset condition

  • Physical condition
  • Remaining life
  • Refurbishment cost estimate
  • Replacement cost estimate

D. Asset history

  • Original acquisition cost
  • Installation date
  • Past maintenance
  • Cumulative maintenance costs

6. Plan for maintenance, renewal, and replacement

two engineers inspecting the interor of a pipe

All assets require maintenance and even the best maintained assets eventually need renewal and/or replacement. Accounting for this reality helps minimize service interruptions and unexpected costs.

Creating maintenance benchmarks is the first step in this process. Defining these benchmarks strategically helps increase asset lifespan through preventive maintenance work. It also removes a lot of the guesswork.

Let’s say your maintenance benchmarks are Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor. If you receive a report that an asset is in poor condition - you automatically know it needs replacement, or at the very least renewal.

Questions to consider when setting up this system are:

  • Is this asset critical to network performance?
  • What are the risks if this asset were to fail?
  • What is this asset’s expected lifespan?
  • What actions could be taken to lengthen that lifespan?

The next step in this process is setting up a system for prioritization. Often, multiple assets will require repair at the same time. However, budget and time constraints limit how many assets can be renewed or replaced.

This is where the questions above become particularly important. If an asset’s failure could cause injury or destruction, rather than just inconvenience, its replacement must be prioritized.

Bonus Step: Develop Channels for Internal & External Communication

Effective asset management should not be siloed to a single department. Well-functioning assets affect the health of the utility as a whole, so asset management procedures and priorities should be made common knowledge.

Establishing standards for communication is vital.

For employees, there should be clear procedures for communicating about asset condition, operational changes, and risk management. For customers and other citizens, there should be an accessible platform for maintenance and community updates.

Having open lines of communication between citizens, utilities, and your team members will 

create a necessary space for feedback and trust - increasing the overall effectiveness of your asset management program.

Discover how Mobile GIS can support field crews in the inspection and maintenance of natural gas assets

Start a free trial of Unearth’s OnePlace for Integrity Management to see Mobile GIS in action.

unearth's integrity management mobile GIS
Start your free trial
Get the latest in infrastructure news. Sign up for our newsletter.