University of California at Berkeley

The Light at the End of the Tunnel

Vera's Years-Long Effort Pays Off With an Accurate Map of Campus Utilities

 by Robert Sanders

Imagine navigating the Bay Area's freeway maze with a 40-year-old map, and you can appreciate the headache campus planners and emergency personnel have had for decades.

Many of the campus maps detailing locations of utilities such as water, gas and steam lines hadn't been updated since they were created by the Army Corps of Engineers and ROTC in the 1950s.

When the occasional water line broke, staff often had to guess which valve would shut it off, and construction crews were running into lines where they shouldn't have been.

Such unforeseen problems have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars in construction delays and cost overruns to reroute utility lines, according to Al Vera, a project manager in Physical Plant's Office of Energy and Engineering Services.

Now, thanks in large part to Vera's tenacity, the campus will soon have a computerized database with accurate up-to-date information on all the utilities on campus, with every valve, hydrant and switch box located to within inches. Though the mapping has been going on for the past eight years, Vera put the finishing touches on the data base this past summer and put the information online for users with the proper computer software. It should be a boon to campus planners, designers, analysts and maintenance personnel, as well as outside consultants, he says.

In addition, by next spring everyone should have access through the Internet. With funding from the Office of the Vice Chancellor -- Business and Administrative Services, Vera has started to build an interactive web site that all members of the public can use.

He's already gotten requests for data from the City of Berkeley, the East Bay Municipal Utility District and LBNL and will provide the final topographic information to the U.S. Geological Survey to update their detailed maps.

"Before, we often just guessed where utility lines were and hoped for the best," Vera said. "In surveying the campus over the past eight years we found many errors, and some of the crafts people pointed out others. Some locations were off by as much as five feet."

Vera said they found sewers that were supposed to connect but didn't, water lines smaller than they were supposed to be, shut valves where there weren't supposed to be any valves at all.

"Every time we dig a hole I expect to find buried treasure. It goes with having an old campus like this," said Jeff Gee, director of Design and Project Management in the Office of Planning, Design and Construction. "This system hopefully will help us to do better planning and anticipate problems better."

The new computerized system will be a definite improvement over the discolored and patched waxed-cloth maps­many with holes left by overzealous erasures­that lie in a drawer at the Carlton Street offices of Physical Plant. Vera and his fellow project managers can update their map in seconds.

"We can make good use of this in our preliminary planning, because Al's plot of buildings and the campus is extremely accurate," said Kevin Hufferd, a senior planner in the Office of Physical and Environmental Planning. "We also can be assured this will be up-to-date, that we're not dealing with an old map that has been on the shelf for years."

Hufferd foresees adding more and more information to the base map database, ranging from historic buildings and campus landmarks to important physical features. Planner Dale Sanders hopes to map out fire management areas in Strawberry Canyon complete with the tree species found there. And Vera would simply like to have water pressure data readily available or video clips of the sewer and storm drains.

Such a system would be a true geographic information system, or GIS, which is the state-of-the-art method for tying all sorts of data, ranging from text to photos to video to geographic information, to a map format for easy access. "We eventually could build a database everyone can use," Hufferd said.

The computerized map would also allow Vera to generate personalized maps. For example, the fire marshal and city fire department could be supplied with maps that highlight fire hydrants and omit much of the other utility data.

Vera first started working on the project eight years ago when he interned with the department while still a Berkeley architecture student. He stayed on after getting his degree and eventually acquired a prepro-fessional surveyor's license as well.

With his computer expertise he was the natural choice to computerize new data coming in on campus utilities, and, as the only licensed surveyor on campus, he also went out on the spur of the moment to quickly pinpoint utilities.

By combining this data with surveys done in selected areas by outside design companies as a prelude to construction, he eventually acquired up-to-date information on most of the electrical and data communication lines, plus gas, steam and water mains and the storm and sewer systems.

This summer he worked to complete the final piece of the campus puzzle. A photogrammetry firm in Oakland analyzed aerial photos taken in 1994 and produced a topographic map of all 1,232 acres of the campus, with precise elevations and positions for every building, sidewalk, road and tree.

As he ties this in with the utility survey data he is finding­much to his relief­that everything fits together. Pipes emerge from buildings where they are supposed to, manhole covers are in the right place, and valve locations are correct.

The effort was worth it: A water main break in Wurster Hall last year was stanched in 10 minutes, Vera said. "Ten years ago I don't know how long that would have taken."

Gee emphasized that "this is an ongoing effort." More than 100 years of building and tearing down, coupled with little documentation, has produced a campus with lots of old underground pipes and lines.

"We can get very close to knowing what's out there, but we'll never know it all."


Copyright 1996, The Regents of the University of California.
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