Fix the pumps

Monday, October 09, 2006

Bid solicitations are hard!

At least, that's what the Corps would have you believe. Let's look at the September 25th article from New Orleans CityBusiness again, specifically, the passage about why the Corps says bid solicitations on the Orleans Parish pump station repairs have been delayed:

"It wasn’t until May 1, eight months after Katrina, that the Corps approved a project information report detailing the pump station damages, [Corps of Engineers project manager Daniel Bolinger] said. On May 3, the city of New Orleans signed an agreement authorizing the repairs, he said.

Another factor is the time it takes to design the repairs, which are then bundled into contracts, advertised for bids and awarded, he said."

What they are speaking about there is the creation of specifications for the repairs. That can take a very brief time (if the item has been purchased many times before or the specification author has experience in the area) or it can take a little while (if the item is unusual or the author has little experience in the area).

So let's look at the Corps' bid solicitations and try to find the parts that would cause a 13 month delay. I've gotten my hands on a few since the storm.

One of the jobs that still has to be bid is the repair of the four frequency changers in New Orleans. Frequency changers are huge devices that convert 60 cycle per second (or Hertz, abbreviated Hz) electrical current received from the local utility - Entergy New Orleans - to 25 Hz current that can be used by the older pumps in the Sewerage & Water Board drainage system. Those pumps can be found at nearly every station west of the Industrial Canal, and at station 5 east of the Industrial Canal in the Lower Ninth Ward.

The frequency changers provide a ready supply of power to 25 Hz pumps while the main S&WB generators are started. I have been told that it can take about twenty to twenty-five minutes to get the drainage pumps' generators started. In that time, water could be pooling in the streets. So the frequency changers are started immediately when it starts raining really hard and can provide power during that fallow period.

However, the frequency changers cannot provide power to every pump in the system. Only one 25 Hz pump per station is set up to receive power from the changers. In general, it is pump "C." But when one considers that each of those pumps is 1000 cubic feet per second (cfs), it is a significant amount of pumping that is enabled in that critical time when the rain really starts falling.

The frequency changers are basically two very big motors rotating on the same shaft. Here's a picture of one, taken from the Orleans Parish Pump Stations PIR (surrounded by a white line):

One motor is powered by the incoming 60 Hz power and turns the shaft for the other, which acts as a 25 Hz generator. Similar devices are still used today to convert power between the European power frequency standard (50 Hz) and the U.S. standard (60 Hz), or the other way. Another application is for use in the aerospace industry, where 400 Hz is a common frequency aboard planes. Frequency changers are used to power the plane when it's on the ground hooked up the airport's 60 Hz or 50 Hz power system. The job of changing frequencies can also be handled electronically with no moving parts. These devices are normally called frequency converters.

As I said, there are four frequency changers in New Orleans. Two (numbers 1 and 2) are located in a non-descript building called the Carrollton Facility at 8404 Earhart Blvd. The others (numbers 3 and 4) are located at Station 17, which is near the intersection of I-10 and I-610. It's the smaller dark green-roofed building just north of the railroad tracks in the middle of this photo.

The changers in Station 17 have been sprayed with high pressure fresh water and dried and placed back into service (just like the pump motors were just after the storm). The ones at the Carrollton Facility have not been touched since the storm, remaining out of service. All four were submerged by salty floodwaters and require rewinding, just like the pump motors. If you don't believe me, listen to the Corps in the Orleans Parish Pump Station PIR:

Station 17: "Flood waters inside the building reached a height of 2 feet. The motors for drainage pumps A and D and four motors for frequency changes [sic] 3 and 4 were submerged and require rewinding."

(Part of that quote is actually an error; pumps A and D are connected to a common motor)

Carrollton Facility: "Floodwaters reached a height of 2 feet above the floor slab. The motor pits were flooded inside the building and the transformers outside received about 2 feet of water. The four frequency changer motors require full rewinding along with rewiring conductors in the pits and replacing the battery rack and drip pans. The outdoor electrical equipment requires cleaning and repairs."

So it would seem that since the Corps issued the motor rewinding contracts in May, it would be an easy thing to issue a solicitation for rewinding of the frequency changers. After all, they are basically the same devices as the motors, so those specifications should be nearly identical. Admittedly, there's extra work because there is other equipment to be fixed, but why should it take months to get the specifications for that work together?

Maybe, as the Corps claims, the specifications are so incredibly complicated that it really does take months to write them. So let's take a really close look at the specifications for the motor rewinding contract and see if we can find the complex bits.

The motor rewinding solicitation is a single 40 page document. There were no other drawings or appendices. The first page is a title page that is filled out by Corps personnel. It has a table of contents, the date of the solicitation and some other basic information on it. It's simple.

The title page is followed by a pricing sheet that the bidder is to fill out. It shows a detailed list of the items on which the bidder is supplying prices, along with lines for the bidder to place their price. In the motor rewinding solicitation, this section takes up 3 pages and is very simple.

The pricing sheets are followed by a paragraph of special non-boilerplate directions to the bidders. This is less than a page.

After that are the actual technical specifications. These are pretty dense on the technospeak, and take up 7.5 pages. However, 1.5 pages of that is a simple list of the pumps with motors to be rewound and addresses of the pump stations. Another half page is just blank space. And another page is taken up with requirements for inspections, schedules, and submittals by the vendor. That leaves 5 pages of actual technical writing. Considering that most specifications are not written from the ground up, but are copied from other sources, and also considering that we know the S&WB had handed specs over to the Corps, there is no way the actual technical writing could have taken longer than one to two weeks, if that much.

After the technical section comes 8.5 pages of standardized wage determinations from the Labor Department. You can generate the exact same output as appears in the bid solicitation by clicking through a few questions at this government website. Choose the "Selecting SCA WD's" link and follow the prompts. It took me about a minute to generate the same table (or one very much like it) as appears in the bid solicitation. So clearly that section is not the tough one.

We're now up to page 21 of the 40 page document. From page 21 to the final page, the solicitation is boilerplate commercial provisions. By "boilerplate," I mean that there is no original writing, but copying and pasting from other sources. By far, the largest source is clauses from the government's Federal Acquisition Regulation, also known as FAR. Specifically, all the clauses referred to in this solicitation are taken from Part 52, Solicitation Provisions and Contract Clauses.

The basic idea of the commercial sections in a Corps bid solicitation is to select applicable clauses from Part 52 of the FAR and include them, either by reference or by copying and pasting the full text. I suppose those clauses that are included with their full text are more important.

The breakdown for the remaining 20 pages is as follows:
-Clauses from FAR Part 52 (reference or complete text): 10 pages
-"Accident Prevention Program - Administrative Plan" form: 8 pages (3 of which are mistakenly included twice). The form - which is meant to be filled out by the bidder and is thus blank - is a standard one for the N.O. District and has been used in many previous solicitations.
-Corps evaluation criteria - 2 pages, both of which are boilerplate from many other N.O. District solicitations.

Here's an example of the work in the commercial section. Page 21 is titled "Section E - Inspection and Acceptance" and consists of the following:

While there is obviously some effort involved in pulling together the commercial provisions, it's not like they have to be created from the ground up. It's more like choosing items from a Chinese restaurant menu. Considering how many professionals the New Orleans District Contracting office employs, and how many solicitations they routinely churn out, there's no way it would take longer than a few days to put together the commercial section of such a solicitation. Thus, the commercial section is not the tough part.

So that's it. Of the 40 pages in the solicitation, just 5 are actual technical writing that require original work. The other 35 are either generated automatically on a government website (about 8 pages), are simple pricing and title sheets (4 pages), or are boilerplate forms and provisions that are common to numerous solicitations put out for years by the New Orleans District (about 23 pages).

The frequency changer rewinding bid solicitation would look very similar to the motor rewinding solicitation, with perhaps a few more pages of technical writing. Can someone at the Corps please explain what in the world is taking so long? If it is so obviously easy to put together a solicitation (and the others I have are no more complicated), why haven't they done so and issued them? A recent college graduate could do it in less than a week.


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