Volgenau School of Engineering
George Mason University
George Mason University Mason
George Mason University

Systems Engineering students get their hands wet streamlining water main repairs

April 24, 2017

Systems Engineering students rode along with crews like this as part of their senior design project.

Systems Engineering students rode along with crews like this as part of their senior design project.

When Adnan Khan, Rebecca Orozco, Mohamed Khattab, Fahad Alqahtani donned reflective jackets and hard hats and rode along with District of Columbia water system repair crews, they learned that Systems Engineering is not a desk job.

“Being out in the field we learned so much about the details of water main repair that you cannot get from a meeting or Skype. I just loved this hands-on part of the project,” said Rebecca Orozco.

The District of Columbia has over 1,440 miles of water main pipes with approximately 40,000 valves, 9,500 fire hydrants and 130,000 service connections. With parts installed in the 1800s, the median age of pipes has reached 78 years.

As water courses through these pipes at over 200 psi, ruptures can occur. These ruptures buckle roadways, flood streets, and cause widespread service disruptions. In the winter months, this can create hazardous icy conditions. The District’s water utility reports approximately 500 water main breaks per year.

“As the system ages, there are more breaks. The highest priority breaks are repaired first creating a growing backlog of low priority work orders,” explained Fahad Alqahtani. “With the same number of repair crews this backlog will keep growing.”

The team performed big data analytics on the work order database and classified the low priority work orders. Then they set about detailing the workflow for each category of repair and identifying bottlenecks.

“You would be amazed how complicated it is repair a simple leak,” said Mohamed Khattab. “Before any excavation can begin crews need permission from the forestry service if a tree is nearby and from all the underground utilities such as cable, optical cable, telecom, and electric power. Equipment has to be stationed, parts need to be ordered, and crews need to be assigned.”

Team lead Adnan Khan said, “We did two things. First we designed a neural network system to forecast when main breaks would occur based on the weather forecast. Second we built a simulation of the work flow to show how process improvements can relieve bottlenecks, reduce time and cost, and improve quality.

“The small details we learned from being there with the repair crews was critical,” said Adnan. “You cannot do System Engineering from behind a desk.”

“George Mason has an awesome System Engineering program,” said Chris Coit a manager at DC Water. “The fact that these undergraduate students could come out an help us in this way is impressive.”

The senior design project is finished, but these students aren’t. Now they are seeking venture capital to start a company that helps water utilities predict water main breaks and streamlines their workflows. So, next time you get your water from a faucet think about the complexity of the water distribution system and about the small contribution made by a team of students who left their desks and got their hands wet.