Coordinated Effort, Federal Funding Spell Success for Rural Areas

Thomas R. Fuszard — Apr 01, 2009

n these challenging economic times, many communities find it difficult to maintain their roads, sewer and water systems, and other infrastructure. Yet repair they must, for the work needs to get done.

A substantial sewer rehabilitation project recently completed in Houghton County, Mich., serves as a good example of how rural communities, with the help of federal funding, can work together to solve an expensive problem.

This project also showcases the advantages of employing a team of contractors under the direction of a prime contractor. Working in unison they were able to complete the project on time and under budget. Best of all, they accomplished their objectives: to reduce inflow and infiltration (I&I) and breathe new life into a worn out system.

Houghton County sits on a finger of land jutting into the pristine waters of Lake Superior. Its 36,000 residents are spread among approximately two dozen communities or townships throughout its 1,500 square miles.

In areas like this, it is difficult for individual communities to fund infrastructure projects by themselves. In the late 1970s, four communities banded together to form the Torch Lake Sewage Authority to develop a sewage system for the area, according to Fran Bessner, System Operator.

A total of 1,250 connections exist in a system serving approximately 3,000 people. It is a mostly residential area, with perhaps 80 or 90 businesses, Bessner says. The system consists of two sites: Lake Linden, with four lift stations and one pump station, and Tamarack City with two lifts and one pump station. (Tamarack also has two simplex pumps connected near homes that are left over from the 1970s). Lake Linden is designed to handle 110,000 gallons/day; Tamarack was built for 100,000 gallons/day. Both pump into settling lagoons.

A former copper mining area, many of the homes are more than 100 years old, Bessner says. Few if any have sump pumps, and all floor drains are connected to the sanitary sewer system. The water table is shallow in one section, resulting in mainlines running under water. In addition, the region averages more than 200 inches of snow each year, causing significant spring flows.

An I&I study in 1985 determined that many roof drains were connected to the sanitary lines. Over time, the Authority was able to eliminate a lot of those problems and get to a manageable situation. But the system was still pumping too much water.

The settling lagoons were experiencing high levels and were often near capacity, according to Jim Koskiniemi, Project Manager for U.P. Engineers & Architects Inc. of Houghton, Mich. The Authority’s discharge permit was up for renewal, and Michigan’s Department of Environmental Quality stated that no new connections would be permitted unless the Authority expanded the lagoons or removed additional I&I.

Complete Analysis Was First Step

Koskiniemi says his firm recommended televising the entire 80,000 feet of main line. A previous smoke test had identified some problem areas, but couldn’t pinpoint the source of the I&I, he says. Televising showed that about 25,000 feet of main line needed work, in addition to a number of laterals and manholes. The original clay pipe was joined every three to five feet, providing many more potential problem areas. “We were able to really nail down where the leaks were and what had to be done to fix the system,” he says.

In addition, U.P. Engineers installed meters to give officials accurate data on flows. The results showed that flow rates were about double what they should have been. In fact, Bessner says, on some days Lake Linden was pumping upwards of 200,000 gallons a day; Tamarack perhaps 170,000 gallons. During rainy periods, Lake Linden was pumping 500,000 gallon a day. They could handle it, Bessner says, but the pumps would run continuously for weeks at a time.

An analysis showed that relining was the most cost-effective of the repair options available, Koskiniemi says, so that’s what the Authority chose to do. Visu-Sewer Inc. of Pewaukee, Wis., was the low bidder, and became prime contractor for the project. As was the case in the 1970s, the Torch Lake Authority turned to the USDA’s Rural Development program for funding. They secured a low-interest, 40-year loan to undertake the rehabilitation. (For more on the Rural Development program, see the sidebar on page 27.)

One thing immediately apparent, says Phil Romagna, Vice President of Visu-Sewer, was the extensive deterioration of the mainline. “Quite a bit of the system, which was constructed of clay pipe, had simply failed,” he says.

As prime contractor, Visu-Sewer needed to coordinate the efforts of several subcontractors. Included among those were Manderfield PHE Inc. of Atlantic Mine, Mich.; Southwest Pipeline and Trenchless Corp. of Gardena, Calif.; and Tony Burcar Contracting Inc. in Hubbell, Mich.

According to Romagna, the project entailed lining more than 24,500 feet of 8- to 12-inch mainline. In addition, 28 laterals, totaling 525 feet of pipe, were relined and finished off with Top Hat lateral systems, which provide a seal at the lateral-main interface.

In a process that would be repeated numerous times, working manhole to manhole, Visu-Sewer re-televised each section to ensure there were no new problems, then installed cured-in-place pipe lining (CIPP). After Visu-Sewer reinstated the laterals, Tony Burcar Contracting dug a cleanout at the lot lines. Southwest Pipeline provided CIPP lining of the laterals and installed the Top Hat system. On a few laterals, Visu-Sewer used chemical grout to seal active connection leaks prior to the Top Hat installation.

Steve Vossmeyer of Southwest Pipeline says that because of its flexibility and strength, the Top Hat can be installed in nearly any connection: straight T, crooked Y, and even an offset joint. “Even if the joint is in bad shape, chances are the Top Hat will seal properly,” he says, adding that the combination of pipe lining and Top Hat provides an effective seal against water and roots. “It’s like buttoning up your coat,” Romagna says.
In the meantime, Manderfield PHE and Tony Burcar Contracting were working on other aspects of the project. As the mechanical and electrical contractor for the project, Manderfield PHE was responsible for rehabilitating all the lift stations. This included installing new wiring, piping, pumps and controls. According to company president Matt Manderfield, the new electrical system will be easier to operate. “Instead of visual, on-site review [of flow rates], they can see this information in real time via a computer at the control station,” he says.

In addition to digging the cleanouts, Tony Burcar Contracting performed nearly three dozen open cut repairs and installations of the mainline. The firm also installed new wet wells, rehabilitated a number of manholes, and provided frame and grade adjustments, according to company representative Daryle Polzien.

Expectations for the Rehabilitated System

Jim Koskiniemi says the Torch Lake Authority should expect decades of use from the new system. “On the lining we’re hoping that we get at least 50 years,” he says. “And for the lift stations, 15 to 20 years is a pretty good expectation.” Installing variable frequency drives in the lift stations means the operators will no longer have to run the pumps at 100 percent at all times, a necessity in the past. That will save money and extend the life of the pumps, he adds.

Romagna is impressed that the engineer chose a totally trenchless approach to lining the mainline and laterals, and included Top Hats in the design. “You now have a sewer system that can be water tight from manhole to manhole, and up the lateral to the cleanout,” he says.

On Time, Under Budget

Despite its complexity, the Torch Lake project was completed in November as planned and arrived $50,000 under its budget of $2.171 million. More importantly are the savings to the community, both long term and short term.

By using trenchless technology, Koskiniemi says, the Authority was able save a lot of money and avoid the permitting issues normally associated with working in that kind of environment. “Lining the pipes really helped keep the cost down on the project and still met the needs that we had,” he says.

Koskiniemi says that communities that choose to line their systems piecemeal end up dealing with leaks somewhere.

He said he was quite impressed when he learned of the comprehensive lining method offered by Visu-Sewer. “I said, ‘I don’t have to dig up laterals, so I like it.’ It worked out really well.”

Southwest Pipeline has installed hundreds of Top Hat connections in southern California and other states with great success. “I’d encourage cities to at least give it a try,” Vossmeyer says. “It’s not perfect for every situation, but a lot of times it’s better than the alternative, which is digging.”

Because the project was completed during a drier season, Romagna cautions that it’ll take time for the Authority to realize the benefits. But the gains will be real. “By removing clear water from the system, their pumps won’t work so hard, so their electrical bill goes down,” he says. “And the pumps last much longer.”
Although understandably happy with his firm’s performance, Romagna stresses that using one firm to act as prime contractor is better for the community. “That firm will do everything; it’s a lot smoother process,” he says.

Thomas R. Fuszard is a business writer from New Berlin, Wis. He may be reached at

Rural Development Program:
A Funding Option for Small Communities

Begun as the Farm Service Bureau to help farmers during the dustbowl days, Rural Development has expanded to encompass sewer and water, fire and rescue equipment, low-income housing, senior citizen complexes, and other needs.

This funding source is particularly useful to smaller communities that may have difficulty raising capital for important projects, says Duane Reid, Area Specialist for USDA in Gladstone, Mich.

Any governmental body is eligible to apply, Reid says, as long as it meets population criteria. For example, on sewer and water projects, the population limit is 10,000. Communities can apply by themselves or form an authority, as was the case in Michigan. In a situation like that, “everybody’s a winner,” he says.

After reviewing the details of a project, Rural Development makes an offer describing the level of funding available. It could be as a loan, grant, or a combination of both. As long as the application is completed properly, USDA can make its decision within 30 days, Reid says.

City officials are welcome to contact the USDA directly, but many turn to an engineering firm first to determine the scope of the problem and its costs. Such was the case with Torch Lake. Reid says his staff provides training to engineering firms so they can discuss the various options available.

Although Rural Development funding is used to resolve an immediate issue, it offers long-term benefits to the area. “This way communities clean up their environment, maintain their systems and are provided a backbone for economic development,” Reid says.

— Thomas R. Fuszard

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