30,000 custom-made challenges: A grade-raising solution for legacy valve boxes

July 10, 2015

Newport News, Va., has a population of approximately 183,000, making it the fifth most populous city in the state. Newport News Waterworks is a regional water provider, owned and operated by the City of Newport News that serves over 400,000 people in Hampton, Newport News, Poquoson, and portions of York County and James City County, Va.

 “We have a complex water distribution infrastructure with over 1,700 miles of pipe, 11,000 fire hydrants, two surface water treatment plants and one desalination plant,” the city’s Water Distribution Operations Coordinator Jim LeVasseur said.

Those are the major components, common to any municipal water system. But the Newport News Waterworks distribution system also has a subtly unusual component; most of the city’s 30,000 plus water valves are set in 16-in. diam boxes that look more like small manholes than typical ‘Buffalo-style’ boxes. It’s a feature of the system that’s been used since the 1920s or earlier.

The 16-in. castings are set over a valve housing made of 12-in. terracotta or truss pipe, which allows shovels to be used to access the operating nut. But over time, as vacuum trucks became more common, the unusual boxes began to be seen as more of a liability than a convenience.

“The problem is when street paving is in full swing in five jurisdictions, we didn’t have a good way to raise our valve boxes to grade, other than raising the whole casting,” LeVasseur explained.

Cast iron risers were used for years, most being epoxied in place, but with too high of a failure rate; the ring and lid popping out; leaving large open holes in the roadway creating an emergency situation.” 

“The problem was so serious that the Waterworks eventually began to contract out replacing/raising valve box castings, but still could not keep up with the pace of work. Many were still being paved over. Uncovering the boxes when needed was a tedious, time-consuming chore of course, but the hassles were considered less of a problem than damaged tires and rims, not to mention potential car accidents. When the boxes were raised, the Waterworks and/or contractor used a manual method that relied on excavation, a process that could close a road for several hours.

Since 2006, Newport News has been using a custom riser solution that is much faster than raising valve boxes by traditional methods, cost-effective and secure.

“Once you tighten the turnbuckle, they do not fail,” valve maintenance specialist Michael Lawson said of the custom risers.

A nine-year pilot project

In 1995, Scott Fier visited Newport News along with his father.

“It was my first road trip demonstrating our Pivoted Turnbuckle Manhole Riser,” said Fier, now president of American Highway Products.

 “It sure seemed like a plausible solution to our challenging valve box solution,” LeVasseur said, intrigued by their unique riser product.

 But Newport News was wary of risers, thanks to a bitter experience with cast iron risers. So, rather than make a big initial investment, the Waterworks decided on a small, intense pilot project.

“We bought one of the 2-in. pivoted turnbuckle risers, made for us, and installed it on a valve box right in ‘wheel traffic’ on Jefferson Avenue, one of our most heavily traveled roadways,” LeVasseur said.

And there it sat, performing perfectly for nine years, until the roadway was later repaved again.

“Obviously, we knew before the nine years was up that these risers were a winning solution,” LeVasseur said. “But we simply weren’t able to make a major commitment at that time.”

But the successful test did eventually lead to a new standard for Newport News Waterworks. In 2006, the City and AHP came to an agreement, formalized in a letter; American Highway Products agreed to make as many of the custom 16-in. risers as Newport News needed to address their large backlog of paved over valve boxes, and the Waterworks committed to a regular program of upgrading. Since then, about 200 risers have been installed annually, and LeVasseur has a satisfying feeling of finally getting ahead of a nagging problem.

The American Highway Products riser is a flexible ring of heavy duty galvanized steel that is set in existing utility rims before new paving in order to provide a seat, at new grade level, for manhole lids. They’re lighter, faster to install, and more cost-effective than cast iron risers, and much lighter, faster, and more cost-effective than raising utility castings with excavation.

The key feature is the pivoted turnbuckle, which is built into the flexible ring and is used to adjust the ring to the inner diam. of the existing rim. A Phillips head screwdriver or crescent wrench is used to crank the turnbuckle, and a few turns is enough to exert thousands of lb of force.

“It is such a helpful feature,” said Lawson. “Cranking the turnbuckle really tightens the riser up to the rim, and they simply do not rattle or fail. And they’re fast to install, with no special tools—simply no comparison to the cast iron risers we’d been using.”

Risers are installed during paving season, which is from March to November in Virginia. They’re installed by contractors on new paving projects, and the Waterworks has a regular schedule for raising previously paved over castings using appropriate height risers with their own crews. “They’re quick to install, only 30 minutes even when we’re digging up paved over boxes,” LeVasseur said.

“That limits lane closures, and our exposure to traffic, so they’re safer and our liability is greatly reduced. And they’re light, too, which reduces the possibility of pinching or strain injuries for our crews—really they’ve been a perfect solution for us.”

The city keeps about a hundred of the risers on hand at all times, in a couple of different thicknesses, and reorders as needed. It may have taken Newport News a while to make a commitment to a new infrastructure solution, but now that they are making up for lost time, and making their system safer and more efficient.

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