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Pipe Swapper

Updated: Oct 7, 2019

Growing up in a remote village in Pangasinan province of the Philippine Islands, Genevieve Han was exposed early to the realities and challenges of unreliable infrastructure. She rode the jeepney (public transportation) more than an hour to get to school. Typhoons regularly had their way with the local power grid, forcing her to study by candlelight. Power outages also took her family’s water heater out of service, forcing them to pump water from their groundwater well and boil it for cooking and bathing purposes.

LASAN Pipes in Palos Verdes Slide zone
Water pipes in California are vulnerable to seismic disruption. Brooks McKinney photo

“Having that type of experience and not a well-developed infrastructure motivated me to get into math, science and technology,” said Han, who earned both a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree in civil engineering from UCLA.

Genevieve Han, district engineer for LADWP's Water Distribution Division. -- LADWP photo

Today, as a district engineer for the Water Distribution Division of the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, she applies her passion for infrastructure to helping ensure that the city’s water delivery system will never let the people of Los Angeles down, even after a major earthquake. LADWP, the largest municipal utility in the U.S., provides water and power to more than four million people living in its service area of about 473 square miles.

“I’ve lived through major earthquakes in the Philippines (Luzon, 1990, magnitude 7.7) and the U.S. (Northridge, 1994, magnitude 6.7), and have seen the devastating impact earthquakes can have on a community,” she said. “Those experiences provide the energy and inspiration for my job today.”

Getting Ready for the Big One

Han helps manage LADWP’s efforts to improve the seismic resiliency of its water distribution system. Approximately 3 miles of the utility’s 6,700 miles of water distribution pipes are considered strong enough to withstand damage from major seismic events.

To prepare for the “big one,” her department plans to install at least 15 miles of earthquake-resistant ductile iron pipe (ERDIP) in LA within the next three years. This pipe – primarily distribution mains – will be installed strategically in areas near fault and liquefaction zones, and spots where the network serves critical facilities such as hospitals, schools and emergency shelters.

According to Han, LADWP also plans to replace many of its trunk (>24”) lines using ERDIP.

ERDIP differs from conventional ductile iron pipe in that it uses an earthquake-resistant joint designed to expand and contract as the earth moves. The joint prevents adjacent sections of pipe from pulling apart during seismic events, even when vertical excursions reach several meters.

ERDIP Photo courtesy of Kubota Corp., Osaka, Japan

Building Partnerships, Moving Ahead

LADWP’s transition to ERDIP is not without challenges. For Han, a recurring problem is the growing “spaghetti of utilities” along LA’s street corridors. This “infraclutter” results from every utility – telecommunications, gas, power, water, sewer – trying to install underground pipe or cable in essentially the same corridor along busy streets. “It’s making it harder and harder for me to find corridors for new pipe,” she said.

Another complicating – but not unexpected – aspect of using Kubota's ERDIP is that its metric-sized pipes and fittings are not designed to connect with the English-sized pipe already in the ground. According to Han, Kubota has begun modifying the dimensions of its ERDIP to ensure compatibility between old and new.

She is also challenged by Kubota’s lack of pipe manufacturing facilities in the U.S., a factor that can delay LADWP’s retrofitting process if the installation plans change and new parts are required from Japan. That’s why Han is working with companies such as American Pipe & Supply to help them design and produce domestic – and more available – ERDIP products.

Grace Under Pressure

A typical day for Han starts in her office in downtown Los Angeles, where she supervises staff, and coordinates work with the engineering design group. The day can also include meetings with contractors, developers, water customers or even local elected officials anxious to discuss progress on LADWP projects in their district. She also goes to her field office in Northridge periodically to check the status of her multiple projects with engineering field aides, field engineer, and construction crews.

Han loves working in the field with engineers and construction specialists. -- LADWP photo

It’s in the field that Han has discovered her greatest challenges – and her greatest job satisfaction. “Every day we encounter unforeseen circumstances,” she said, even when her team has done its due diligence researching the existing substructures within the construction corridor. “I’ve learned to balance the inevitable challenge of a construction crew waiting around to do the work with the need to develop – quickly and concisely – an alternate plan to resolve a problem. I love being able to keep the construction process moving forward.”

Putting Diversity to Work

Han is also interested in seeing opportunities for young students – particularly young women – move forward in fields related to infrastructure. “There are still not a lot of us in the field,” she observes. “It can be a bit intimidating at times to be the only woman in a group of 30 to 40 men during project meetings and job site visits. We really need a much more diverse workforce in the future. If today’s students enter STEM fields and pursue careers in infrastructure, they’ll be able to make a huge impact on their community.”

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