The natural gas industry is ramping up the replacement of its aging infrastructure. Utilities that previously might have replaced 10 miles of natural gas mains per year now are replacing 30 to 50 miles per year.

This is a welcome trend. Old, leak-prone pipes are causing gas pipeline incidents and contributing to methane emissions. Safety demands that the pipes be replaced in a timely manner, and, fortunately, natural gas prices are low enough to largely offset the impact on ratepayers. Yet efficiently managing the increased volume of upgrades presents a number of challenges for utilities.

Follow these tips to help you manage cost and schedule for your gas main replacement program (MRP) more effectively:

  1. Start with process. When starting a new project controls effort, first develop a deep understanding of the process you’ll be interfacing with. It’s tempting to jump right in to building a schedule or a cost controls system, but these tools will be more effective in the long run if you take time to meet with the stakeholders upfront. This includes all the design, planning, permitting, work management and construction teams who will play a role in the system.

    After meeting with these groups, you can create a simple flow diagram mapping out their existing processes. The diagram should include a chronological list of all activities in the process, as well as swim lanes to indicate responsible parties and an indication of the system or tool used in each activity. Ideally, the flow diagram will become the predecessor to a work breakdown structure, which is the cornerstone of the schedule.
  1. Build for the future. Design your project controls system to accommodate growth. This means it should be designed to account for a long-term program with large volumes of data. It also should be able to accommodate other programs within your gas operations department portfolio, such as municipal relocations, pressure reinforcement, large capital projects and even leak repairs. A well-built project controls system can be useful across the board.
  1. Manage resources at the portfolio level. One of the biggest challenges in managing MRP and other gas programs is finding enough construction resources to complete all the work. Accordingly, your project controls system should facilitate strong resource management. Since most utilities hire contractors for work across multiple projects or programs, resource management is best performed at the portfolio level. The goal is for your project controls systems to function equally well at the portfolio, program and project levels.

  2. Allocate buffer wisely. When building your MRP schedule, don’t add float to individual activities. Instead, add it to the end of the project or to key points between activities. As with homework assignments in high school, the person doing the work will aim for the target you set. If you give someone 10 days to do a five-day task, it’ll get done on day nine or 10. So, if you think a task will take five days, forecast five days. Then build some float in at the end of the entire project.

    Surplus budget can be handled the same way. If you tell someone there’s $10,000 to do an $8,000 task, the person will inevitably end up spending all $10,000. It’s better to keep your contingency fund off to the side.
  1. Stay on top of schedule slippage. All project teams want to know how often they need to update and monitor their schedules, but there’s no single answer. Once a month might be enough for some schedules, while others might need to be updated every week. The key is to update and monitor the schedule frequently enough to recognize slippage early, when there is still time to take action that will avoid delays. When in doubt, start by updating schedules at least weekly. Then scale back to one or two times per month if you find that weekly updates are more than is needed.

Many other factors, including design, permitting and forecasting, impact the efficiency of accelerated MRP programs, but following these five tips will get your program off to a good start.


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Jonathan Kadishson is a department manager at Burns & McDonnell, specializing in leading engineer-procure-construct project for large-scale offshore wind projects. With more than 20 years of experience in the energy industry, he brings vast knowledge to every project.