Guest Column | September 5, 2019

Top 10 Challenges In Water And Wastewater Construction Projects

Archis Ambulkar

By Archis Ambulkar


Can you imagine the excitement and nervousness aerospace engineers must be experiencing when the countdown for rocket launch begins? "Three, two, one, blast off!" The next minutes, hours, and days test the team’s ability, experience, and knowledge put into the project. While this analogy may not be as applicable here, we environmental engineers also experience substantial enthusiasm and anxiety when water or wastewater projects enter the construction and commissioning phases. These stages are the most exciting, intensive, and nervous portions of the entire project lifecycle.

After painstaking efforts of planning, preliminary design, final design, permitting, and construction documents preparation, the project becomes ready for bidding. By the time venture reaches this stage, a large amount of money, man-hours, and efforts have already been invested. Also, owners, designers, engineers, government officials, regulators, and other supporting staff have made their valuable contributions at this point. Upon final review, the project gets advertised and bids are requested from contractors. At a stipulated time and location, bids are opened and the successful contractor is selected. Letter of intent and contract agreements initiate the construction process. The project now enters the challenging phase of knowns and unknowns. While each project is unique, water and wastewater projects experience many common issues. Here, an attempt is made to overview some of the key aspects that can impact the outcome of the construction work.

  1. Anomalies in construction documents – Drawings and specifications are the foundation documents for construction work. Any ambiguity in such references can create problems down the road. Designers typically rely on existing site drawings, electronic files, reports, field surveys, vendor information, and in-house expertise for creating contract drawings and specs. Resources and data are used to develop design basis, site plans, layouts, equipment sizing, infrastructure details, and system performance needs. Despite of best design efforts, discrepancies may arise and get carried over into the construction phase if references used are inaccurate, outdated, lack information, or do not reflect ground realities. Inexperience, omissions, errors, short budgets, and many other factors can also contribute towards these issues. Low-quality documents can create confusion, disputes, and the selection of wrong products, materials, or equipment, and eventually affect project quality. Efforts to minimize ambiguities in contract documents are hence necessary to ease construction work.

  2. Permitting delays – Permits are key elements of water infrastructure projects. Depending upon the project scope, various types of permits may be required (like construction permit, building permit, NPDES permit, right-of-way occupancy permit, and so on). Permitting involves documents submission, regulatory authority review, and approval. This process is time-consuming and needs proper consideration in the project schedule. Delayed submittals and incomplete or wrong applications can significantly slow down the approval process and subsequent construction work. On the other hand, close communications with regulatory staff and understanding of permit requirements along with the submission of relevant forms, fees, and supporting documents can greatly expedite the process. Permits can sometimes be challenging, but timely submissions can greatly reduce worries and project delays.

  3. Bid-pricing challenges – Finances are the most sensitive topic. Project costs are typically estimated at the planning stage and get regularly revised as more design specifics become available. Detailed drawings and specs generated for bidding provide a high degree of confidence in finalizing cost estimates. Based on the engineer’s opinion of construction costs and recommendations, the client allots specific budget for the construction projects. Although provisions for money are made, actual bid prices submitted by contractors take the center stage. Fingers are crossed as bids are requested and opened, hoping that the selected contractor bid price will be close to or within budgetary estimates. If the bid prices exceed expected costs, the owner might need to make provisions for additional funds, reduce the project scope, or even delay construction. While such situations are unfortunate and undesirable, several factors can contribute to skew project costs. These may include inaccurate estimates, inflation, bidding competition, economic conditions, project delays, and others.

  4. Handling of shop drawing submittals – Once the construction project gets in full swing, the contractor starts working on shop drawing submittal. The shop drawing submittal process provides engineers and architects an opportunity to review and ensure that correct products are getting installed. The process involves submittal, review, revision, and approval. This step impacts project costs, quality control, and the construction progress. However, incomplete submissions, frequent revisions, and resubmittals can significantly slow down the shop drawing review process. It can consequently affect equipment fabrication, procurement, and shipment to the site. If not handled properly, shop drawing submittals can create a bottleneck in construction work. Realizing the sensitivity of the construction schedule, the contractor needs to provide sufficient lead time for the submittals review process.

  5. Traffic management and mobilization needs – Traffic management is another big issue, especially when the project is located in congested areas, urban surroundings, or locations with high traffic zones. Transportation of heavy equipment, construction tools, materials, establishment of the site office, and other activities require proper access to the project site. These requirements become more intensive for larger projects involving bigger structures, buildings, and higher excavation needs compared to smaller projects. Coordination with local transportation department, allocation of sufficient manpower, and ensuring public safety becomes crucial. Selecting correct traffic patterns can avoid blockage, traffic jams, accidents, and casualties. Traffic management during construction activities is indeed a challenging task.

  6. Unexpected subsurface conditions – Excavation is an integral part of the infrastructure projects. Be it for pipelines, underground tanks, vaults, or other components, contractors most often need to perform excavation activities at the site. Projects involving deeper and wider excavation take up a significant portion of project time and costs. Boring logs, rock cores, foundation investigation reports, topographical maps, and other subsurface data provide an idea about the underground conditions and expected excavation needs. However, detection of unaccounted rock, structures, or anomalies below the grade can suddenly change project dynamics. It may lead to construction delays, increased costs, and other difficulties. Every now and then, we see such unexpected subsurface conditions becoming a major issue and adding to project complexities.

  7. Construction sequence difficulties – Sequence of construction is typically conceptualized and visualized during the design phase, although modifications might be required during actual construction phase. The majority of water/wastewater projects involve upgrades or additions within existing premises, structures, tanks, or buildings. In such cases, maintaining existing systems' smooth operations and compliance while continuing with construction work becomes a tricky task. Well-seasoned professionals are required to develop an effective construction sequence to achieve proper transition between current and newer systems. This issue is less complex if the project is located at an entirely new site. When the sequence is not well-defined, system operations and compliance issues may arise. A lot of coordination is required between the contractor, operators, and engineers to execute the construction sequence effectively during the project span.

  8. Commissioning complexities – Commissioning is one of the last pieces in the puzzle. It is a crucial step where the new system gets operational. Commissioning is comparatively simpler when the project involves pipes, valves, or other simpler modifications. However, the process gets more complicated and time-consuming where pump stations, biological processes, chemical treatments, sludge processes, building installation, electrical modifications, and other major upgrades are involved. Commissioning involves substantial efforts. During the start-up, special attention is needed toward system automation, instrumentation, and controls aspects. Hassle-free transition can be a satisfying experience as the project nears completion.

  9. Coordination and communication issues – The construction process is intense and involves a lot of coordination and communication between the contractor, sub-contractor, client, engineer, surveyors, regulators, and other members involved with the project. Project schedules, daily progress, milestones, and challenges get discussed among the teams on a regular basis. However, lack of communication, miscommunication, ignorance, assumptions, and other actions can create conflicts, disagreements, and an unpleasant atmosphere. This can adversely affect project goals. To meet project needs and keep everyone on the same page at every stage, effective communication and coordination is a must.

  10. Change order disputes – Projects do not always go perfectly as planned. Due to unknowns or unexpected situations in the field, oftentimes work gets added or deleted from agreed contract. Common reasons may include omissions in contract documents, design changes, site conditions, substitutions, and others. In such cases, change orders are typically issued to acknowledge project scope changes and are agreed upon by the contractor, client, and other responsible entities. Verbal confirmation, written agreements, or waivers become a part of this process. These contract alterations are also associated with project pricing and schedule changes. If the parties do not agree to the changes, major disputes may arise that can significantly affect project execution. Arguments among the contractor, sub-contractor, client, or other entities become unavoidable. A large number of change orders can make the project murkier and vulnerable to issues and conflicts. Keeping change orders to a minimum is the key.

Obviously, the list of top 10 challenges will vary from project to project. Also, different engineers or managers can have varied opinions and points of view on what matters the most in respective projects. However, the above narration can provide a glimpse of what can be expected in general during the water or wastewater construction projects. Overall, the satisfactory completion of the project is in everyone’s interest. Handing over a well-laid and well-executed system to the client not only adds to company’s credibility, but also provides an opportunity to develop a long-term relationship and obtain new projects on an ongoing basis.

Archis Ambulkar is an internationally acclaimed water expert and author of the well-received book "Guidance for Professional Development in Drinking Water and Wastewater Industry", published by the International Water Association (U.K.). He has made vital contributions towards Oxford University's Research Encyclopedia on the topic "Nutrient Pollution and Wastewater Treatment Systems" and Britannica Encyclopedia for its "Water Purification" and "Wastewater Treatment" sections. Mr. Ambulkar has written numerous international publications and participated with United Nations programs.