Fix the pumps

Sunday, September 17, 2006

Backup generators - we need them. NOW.

Most of the following is from an email I sent out earlier today. Let me get you up to speed so you can understand what the heck I'm talking about.

Almost all the drainage pumps in Orleans Parish run on electricity. Most older pumps (those installed before the 1950's or 1960's) run on 25 cycle (or hertz, abbreviated Hz) power, which is generated at the Sewerage & Water Board power plant on South Claiborne Ave at the Orleans-Jefferson parish line. Those pumps supply about 60% of the drainage capacity of the city. The 25 Hz power is conveyed on underground lines, away from the damaging effects of wind.

Almost all the rest of the pumps run on 60 Hz electricity supplied by bankrupt local utility Entergy New Orleans. That power is transmitted on overhead lines and is susceptible to the same likelihood of outages as the rest of us who depend upon it. There have been numerous Entergy power outages over the last few months. Some have struck pump stations while they were running 60 Hz pumps. 60 Hz electricity also supplies power to much of the support systems in the pump stations.

Currently, there are no backup generators for any 25 Hz pumps, and it is unlikely there ever will be. 25 Hz dropped out of favor in the U.S. decades ago, and very few people in this country are making equipment that is based on 25 Hz. 60 Hz has long been the standard for America, just like 50 Hz is the standard in Europe.

Now, with that introduction out of the way...

The Corps has been saying for months that rental generators for 60 cycle pumps in Orleans Parish are "not authorized." I think I may have found an argument that smashes that excuse to bits. And it comes from Plaquemines Parish.

With the issuance of the synopsis of the repair work to Plaquemines Parish's pump stations, I decided to take a look at the Project Information Report for that work. In general, the Plaquemines PIR has more revealing detail than the Orleans one. The detail I'm interested in comes on pages 8 and 9.

The report discusses all of the alternatives for Corps action in response to the destruction in Plaquemines' pump stations, ranging from "do nothing" all the way up to the "structural repair and elevating alternative." That last part - "elevating" - is what is intriguing.

In Plaquemines Parish, every pump but one is powered by diesel engines. At six stations, those diesel engines were built at or near ground level. During Katrina, all those engines were inundated and destroyed, requiring their replacement.

Here's the relevant quote from the report:

"ER 500-1-1 paragraph 5-2 b (1) allows for the improvements to design and equipment that are a result of state of the art technology, and are commonly incorporated into current designs in accordance with sound engineering principles. Elevating the equipment when the engine requires replacement is practical and sound engineering. Three pumping facilities sites, Gainard Woods, Sunrise, and Grand Liard/Triumph, each have multiple stations. The older stations Gainard Woods No. 1 (constructed 1960), Sunrise No. 1 (constructed 1960), and Triumph (constructed 1965) flooded approximately 7 to 8 feet above the equipment operating floor. The newer stations, Gainard Woods No. 2 (constructed 1986), Sunrise No. 2 (constructed 1981), and Grand Laird (constructed 1976), constructed adjacent to the older stations, received only minor flooding and do not require major engine overhaul or replacement because the operating floors are at higher elevations than the older stations.

"Similarly, Duvic and Bellevue Pump Stations did not flood because the operating floors are also elevated. Elevating stations to a height near the elevation of the hurricane protection level is common practice for new construction in Plaquemines Parish and is the current design standard for the parish."

They even give pictures of how the elevation is to be done!

I decided to take a closer look at Corps regulation ER 500-1-1, specifically Chapter 5. It is the regulation that governs the nitty gritty of the expenditure of funds by the Corps on repairs to damaged flood control works after a storm. Reading the PIR's, one can see the Corps followed regulations right down the line. The relevant paragraphs are these (linked here):

"5-2 (b) Rehabilitation Assistance Scope. Rehabilitation Assistance is limited to repair or restoration of an FCW to its pre-disaster condition and level of protection (e.g., the actual elevation of the levee, allowing for normal settlement.)
"5-2 (b) (1) Improvements to design and equipment (e.g., geomembranes) that are a result of state of the art technology, and are commonly incorporated into current designs in accordance with sound engineering principles, are permissible, and are not considered betterments."

If part of a project under this regulation is determined to be a "betterment," it has to be paid for by the locals, not the feds, and it can only be included if it fits within the scope of the repair project. In the case of raising the diesel engines at these six stations in Plaquemines, the Corps determined that placing them on platforms wasn't a betterment, but "state of the art technology." In their analysis of the various alternatives, they had this to say about raising the engines:

"The percent increase in cost to the overall project is 5 percent. The additional $389,000 to elevate the engines is a small increase to ensure that damages during future flood events will be minimized. Not only will the pump station damages be reduced, but damages to residential and commercial properties should also be reduced."

What is doubly interesting is that they said the exact same thing about elevating diesel engines at three pump stations in St. Bernard Parish. In that case, they were willing to accept a nearly 15% increase in project costs:

"The percent increase in cost to the overall project is 14.7 percent. The additional $1,371,000 to elevate the engines is a small increase to ensure that damages during future flood events will be minimized. Not only will the pump station damages be reduced, but damages to residential and commercial properties should also be reduced."

So, here we have a case of the Corps, in TWO parishes, going beyind simply repairing stations, but actually doing some improvements to make them more resistant to future storms of Katrina's magnitude. And keep in mind that this work is theoretically separate from the "stormproofing" to be done in the future.

So let's move a little west to Orleans Parish. Unlike Plaquemines, in Orleans almost all the pumps run on electricity. Recognizing the potentiality of flooding, in the 1950's the Sewerage & Water Board began installing backup generators at its newer stations, all of which run on 60 Hz, Entergy-supplied power. Almost every station built since the 1950's has 60 Hz generators. Those stations include 11, 13, 14, 15, 16, 19, 20, I-10, and the brand new Pritchard station in Hollygrove. And it's not like the Corps doesn't know this - they built Pritchard just two years ago under the SELA project. It has generators and its operating equipment is elevated above the top of the nearby levee. You can see a picture of station 14 in all its elevated, generator-having glory at this post below. There's also a picture of its twin, station 16.

Thus, I would say that, in the language of ER 500-1-1, backup generators are "state of the art technology, and are commonly incorporated into current designs in accordance with sound engineering principles." In this case, the sound engineering principle would be the fairly basic idea of keeping the pumps running when their main power source - Entergy power - is lost. That possibility is greatly increased now that Entergy's local power distibution system is severely damaged in the wake of Katrina (the reason they're asking for CBDG money and massive rate increases).

In addition, rental of equipment is expressly permitted by Corps regulations. In fact, it's permitted on the same page as the "state of the art" passage: "Contracts for repair of damaged FCW's will be awarded within 60 days of project approval, or, if the equipment rental method of repair [my emphasis] is used, then the repair work must be initiated within 60 days of project approval."

For reference, the Orleans pump station repair PIR was approved May 1. 60 days would have been June 30.

So here is what I propose for the Corps:
1) Revise the Orleans Parish pump station PIR and Cooperative Agreements (if necessary) to include the placement of 60 cycle rental generators and transformers at the following stations which lack them: 1, 4, 6, 7, Monticello, 10, and 13. I'm just suggesting rental generators that are already mounted on truck trailers and can be brought in on a couple of days' notice. They are commonly available for monthly rentals. I'm not talking about the construction of permanent generators. Here's a picture of rental generators that the Corps rented in July and placed near the 17th Street canal site for over a month. They sat there unconnected to anything. There's enough horsepower in them to run both 60 Hz pumps at station 1, both 60 Hz pumps at station 6, or all the 60 Hz pumps at stations 4, 7, and Monticello combined.



2) In addition, the permanent generator at station 20 is completely destroyed and requires replacement, as the Corps already knows. Quoting from the Orleans Parish PIR about the station 20 generator: "Diesel generator completely flooded and inoperative. Replace generator and diesel engine. New generator and engine should be raised." A rental generator should be placed there as well. The S&WB has a similar situation at station 16 - where the generator requires replacement due to Katrina damage - and went ahead and rented a 1350 kilowatt generator and transformer, which are now powering all four pumps at that station. Here's a picture of that generator, with its accompanying transformer:



3) Move forward with Emergency Procurement contracts with firms like IAP and Welch Generator, both of whom the Corps have given a bunch of business since the storm, and start placing the generators at those stations listed above.

The Corps is promising stormproofing of pump stations some time, maybe 2007, maybe 2008, maybe later. That may or may not include generators. But we need reliable power now, before two or three storm seasons pass.

As further proof of the need, I point you to what happened on July 10th of this year. A 25 Hz generator tripped at the S&WB facility on South Claiborne. Water pressure dropped all across the city for about six hours (not two as reported in the article). What wasn't reported in the media on that rainy day was that all the 25 Hz drainage pumps in the city stopped working at the same time. That's about 60% of the city's drainage capacity - gone in an instant. The only thing left were the 60 Hz pumps. Fortunately, Entergy's power supply was reliable that day and stations with both flavors of pumps were able to switch over to their 60 Hz units. After a few hours, 25 Hz power returned and the older drainage pumps started running again. But what if that had happened during a major storm? Most likely, the city would have had no drainage at all, because Entergy power is very easily lost in a major storm.

Finally, you may be wondering why I'm only talking about 60 Hz generators, when the majority of the system runs on 25 Hz power generated by the S&WB. Well, I'm trimming the low-hanging fruit, so to speak. I have heard that portable 25 Hz generators exist, but I haven't found them during multiple hunts. The 60 Hz variety is much easier to obtain, and the cost of of the rental contract would not be huge, relative to the overall cost incurred by loss of pumping capacity during a storm.

So does that leave any doubt that the argument that rental generators are "not authorized?" It would seem to me that they are very much authorized, and I would even say encouraged, by the plain language of the very regulation upon which the Corps is basing its actions. After all, if the Corps can see fit to include the permanent raising of diesel motors in nine pump stations across two parishes, surely they can agree that the temporary placement of rental generators in a single parish is no greater burden, and would reap just as great rewards.

2 Comments:

  • Matt,

    You have done some great research here, but I disagree with your conclusions. Providing backup generation at each pump station is not economically feasible.

    The key to reliable pumping capacity is to replace the S&WB's outdated 25 Hz power plant and convert everything to 60 Hz. The 25Hz generating equipment was purchased used by the S&WB in the 1930's. It is now getting old and unreliable.

    When 25 Hz generator breaks down, you don't call the manufacturer for replacement parts. Replacement parts aren't made. For decades the Board has been fabricating its own replacement parts in its in-house machine shop. But, the fact is that the Board has been unable to hire machinists for years because Civil Service wages are not competitive with private industry. Consequently, the Board's ability to fabricate replacement parts is disappearing as employees retire. Right now, they are holding things together with duct tape and chewing gum. Pretty soon, when a generator breaks down, there will be no fixing it.

    You admit that there will never be any backup power for the 25 Hz pumps and yet you blithely write off backup power 60% of the city's pumping capacity. How can you fight so hard for backup power to 40% of the system and ignore backup power for the other 60%?

    A better solution is to upgrade all of the old equipment to run on 60 Hz power and build a new S&WB 60 Hz power plant. The S&WB canb then distribute power through its own redundant series of reliable underground feeders. Backup power does not need to be on-site generators. It is more cost effective to put all of the Board's generating capacity in one place and provide backup power through redundant feeders.

    That would be the best of all worlds. You could use Entergy power, or S&WB power inter-changeably to power all pumps in all stations, as well as the water distribution pumps. And, it would cost significantly less than providing separate generating capacity at each station.

    By Anonymous Gerry Preau, at September 21, 2006 12:17 PM  

  • Gerry,

    Thanks for your response. I would like to repeat what I said in the original post:

    "I'm just suggesting rental generators that are already mounted on truck trailers and can be brought in on a couple of days' notice. They are commonly available for monthly rentals. I'm not talking about the construction of permanent generators."

    Such generators are available for just tens or the low hundreds of thousands of dollars a month. My goals are focused on the immediate term and getting the pump stations functioning as well as possible as quickly as possible. The massive overhaul you're talking about - while laudible in its reach and common sensical in its scope - is simply not doable within a short timespan.

    As far as the idea of 25 Hz generators, I suggest you re-read what I wrote: "I'm trimming the low-hanging fruit, so to speak. I have heard that portable 25 Hz generators exist, but I haven't found them during multiple hunts. The 60 Hz variety is much easier to obtain, and the cost of of the rental contract would not be huge, relative to the overall cost incurred by loss of pumping capacity during a storm."

    I agree it would be great to bring the entire 100-year-old infrastructure up to date, but that's just not going to happen any time soon, especially when one takes a realistic view of the S&WB's finances. They are still waiting for tens of millions in FEMA reimbursements, not to mention the millions yet to be spent under the federal consent decree for upgrading the sewer system. Add in the fact that their revenue streams from property taxes and ratepayers have been more than halved (especially in light of the post-Katrina property assessments that knocked most peoples' property taxes down to zero for 2006), and any dreams of massive upgrades are just that.

    By Blogger mcbrid35, at September 22, 2006 2:35 PM  

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