What's the Future of Pipeline Inspection Technology?

From floating cameras to self-propelled units, here's a look at how the pipeline inspection industry has evolved, and where it's headed in the years to come.
What's the Future of Pipeline Inspection Technology?
The pipeline inspection industry must rely on continued improvement of pipeline inspection techniques and technologies.

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New technologies and condition assessment programs along with a more knowledgeable customer base have transformed the way drain cleaning and plumbing contractors inspect pipelines. The industry has moved from one that could only observe existing pipe conditions to one that inspects, reviews, catalogues and analyzes collected data, allowing technicians to forecast potential problems in sewers and drainlines.    

Paul Stenzler, vice president of sales at CUES, says what used to be simple inspections are now complete pipe condition assessments. “Rather than just looking at the pipe, now contractors are cataloging the condition and defects, and prioritizing them in terms of severity,” he says. 

Failure analysis advancements have allowed contractors to predict when pipes will fail if not rehabilitated, providing more control over sewer infrastructure, Stenzler says. These developments have forced drain cleaning contractors and plumbers to change the way they approach inspections, and a new generation of customers expects quick access to data reports. 

The need to compile reliable data and present the information conveniently and quickly to customers now influences how manufacturers develop inspection equipment and how contractors choose equipment. 

Equipment development

The original floating cameras and transporters that were pulled through pipes no longer meet contractors’ needs. Self-propelled units built to be durable and provide easier access to pipes have taken the place of those cumbersome systems. 

“Originally there were tube-type cameras, which could easily shatter if you hit an offset joint or protruding lateral surface,” Stenzler says. “By 1984, the entire industry went solid state, which eliminated all variations of tubes. You went from something that was towed to a self-propelled unit that could be lowered into the closest manhole. This significantly decreased setup time and simultaneously increased productivity.” 

Josh Sooy, senior product manager of underground technologies at RIDGID, a manufacturer of drain inspection tools and locating equipment, says durability has always been a requirement for contractors and plumbers. “They’re still looking for an incredibly durable system, both the push cable and the camera on it, that can take the abuse of being rammed through tight 90s in cast iron and then being submerged in who knows what you find inside of a blocked pipe,” he says. 

Plotting the way

Acquired data and corresponding video was next integrated with GIS mapping and asset management systems as cities and contractors saw a greater need to gather and manage data efficiently. “One of the major changes in pipeline inspection came when data acquisition for decision support became a standard requirement,” Stenzler says.

Gathering more data necessitated easier collection and storage for reference. Original systems recorded to bulky VHS tapes, which were replaced by space-saving DVDs and thumb drives, and now Web-based digital is gaining interest. “Most customers have started shifting toward digital and there are some businesses that fully take advantage of digital,” Sooy says. “They’re doing digital recording and reporting, and then even uploading their reports onto websites where they can share their insights with customers and securely store all the jobs they’ve done in that past.”

However, some contractors stick with what they know and rely on the equipment they’ve used for years because it’s dependable. “Some contractors haven’t felt the need to change,” Sooy says. “Some of them are still using black-and-white cameras with VHS. They’re comfortable with it; they know they can diagnose problems.” 

Despite small pockets of resistance to new technology, the way customers want to receive and review the data gathered from inspections has changed. “Our camera systems have followed along with the changes from VHS to DVD to digital and provide whatever is most popular at that point,” Sooy says. “Right now we’re well into the transition from DVD to digital. Contractors are getting more tech-savvy and their customers are getting more demanding, requiring more digital deliverables.” 

Contractors are turning to digital as well as cloud-based file sharing to keep up with customers’ expectations. “A cloud-based system provides a convenient and secure way to communicate information,” Sooy says. 

Buying shift

There are still those who buy based on price, but contractors generally do their due diligence when it comes to making such a large investment. The length of time they’ve spent in the drain cleaning and inspection business also makes a difference.   

“A lot of the contractors who are just getting into doing drain inspections make product and technology selections based off of price and what kind of a deal they can get on a system,” Sooy says. “The experienced contractors are going to look for the most durable brand they can possibly get because downtime is lost money.” 

Private contractors also have more leeway when making purchasing decisions because they don’t need to request bids like municipalities. “It’s a different process,” Sooy says. “I think most contractors really take their time and do the research, try out and get demos of all the equipment, and then make their decision.” 

Mature customer base

As more contractors educate themselves and their clients on the available technologies, using manufacturer websites and sales representatives as resources, the industry becomes better rounded. “It’s now a mature market,” Stenzler says. “We don’t define to our customers what they need; they define to us the challenges they have with a particular job or jobs and we provide different system options to solve their issues.”

Although drain cleaning contractors and plumbers have become more knowledgeable, even performing some of their own repairs, service is still a main concern among manufacturers. “This is an industry that requires service beyond the normal hours because of the nature of the business,” Stenzler says. “Each manufacturer has to pour an incredible amount of energy, resources and creativity into creating a viable service network for their customer base. The turnaround on a repaired item is essential to maintaining a positive return on investment for any city or private contractor.” 

While CUES recently celebrated 50 years as a manufacturer of pipeline inspection and rehabilitation equipment, meeting customers’ needs is still the focus. “Our concentration is on tested, high-quality products backed by the strongest customer service backing that we can possibly provide,” Stenzler says. “We’re constantly looking for ways to improve our products and customer service. It’s a continuous improvement process for both facets.” 

Bright outlook

With increasing pressure to rehabilitate the nation’s aging infrastructure, the pipeline inspection industry must rely on continued improvement of pipeline inspection techniques and technologies. 

“For so many years the buried infrastructure was out of sight, out of mind,” Stenzler says, noting the tools of the trade will need to be modified in order for the industry to move forward, and more focus will likely be put into potable water lines and large-diameter pipe.

“I believe that analog technologies in many instances are going to become obsolete and digital technologies will prevail,” he says. “Communication schemes will change as technology changes, transmitting more data and higher resolution video over a long distance combined with the fusion of data that can be attained from simultaneous sonar and laser profiling.” 

The shift toward the most accessible forms of data delivery also spurs advancement. “New technology isn’t adopted as quickly as you would think,” Sooy says. “These are major investments you can’t just switch out every year like a smartphone. It’s not going to happen overnight, but I think we’re going to see more and more cloud-based solutions.” 

In the end, customer service and product quality will also play a big role in governing the industry’s continued evolution. “You really have to put in a continuous effort to produce consistent improvement,” Stenzler says. “When you become satisfied, that’s when you know you have a problem.



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