Updated: Aug 9, 2019
Neatly painted utility trucks. Diverse and well-organized tools. Colorful but often dirt-smudged uniforms. These are the things Tony Ferrari remembers most fondly about the
utility workers he used to see as a kid growing up in the Los Angeles suburb of Torrance in the 1990s. He figured they were repairing phone lines, water lines or natural gas lines.
At the time, however, it was a complete mystery. Utility workers and homeowners lived, worked and shared information in completely separate worlds.
Putting Customer Education First
Today, as a leak truck foreman in the Rancho Dominguez District of California Water Service (Cal Water), the mild-mannered, twenty-something Ferrari puts community engagement with his utility company at the top of his priority list.
“One of my main goals is to help customers understand more about the nature of work we’re doing, why it’s important to the community, and what they can do to help make the water delivery system work better,” he explains.
Cal Water is the largest subsidiary of San Jose-based California Water Service Group, the largest regulated American water utility west of the Mississippi River, and the third largest in the country. The company focuses on delivering #cleanwater -- consistently and reliably -- to its more than two million customers in 21 service areas in California.
Keeping Up with Age
Ferrari began his formal education at Los Angeles Trade Technical College, but his real education takes place daily on the streets of the Palos Verdes Peninsula, the southern boundary of the South Bay area of Los Angeles. On a typical day, his crews -- typically one to 10 workers -- repair and replace leaking water mains and service lines, perform maintenance on the water distribution system, and repair fire hydrants damaged by errant vehicle traffic.
Ferrari’s most challenging work, however, involves replacement of cast-iron pipes and related service lines, some of which were installed in the 1950s. In the same way that termites can destroy the integrity of wood in the frame of your house, iron pipes are vulnerable to corrosion from the inside out.
“Unfortunately, cast iron pipes don’t leak ‘slowly,’” he said. “They can go from a small leak to a full-blown flood in a matter of hours.”
Ferrari’s teams typically replace cast iron pipe with ductile iron pipe, a newer form of iron pipe that includes nodular graphite to make it more flexible, and multiple coatings inside and out to make it resistant to corrosion. Ductile pipe can also sustain higher water pressures, which make it more reliable than older pipes.
If Ferrari’s team identifies a small leak on a service line, they will sometimes replace the entire service line instead of just the section that’s leaking. In the interest of long-term system reliability, they might even install new meters, and meter boxes at the same time.
“We only want you to see our smiling faces once every five to 10 years, not three or four times per year for the same issue,” said Ferrari, with a wink. “We pride ourselves on doing things right the first time. That’s how we deliver #waterreliability and dependable service day in, day out.”
Customer Satisfaction on Tap
Like most water utilities in the country, Cal Water faces a massive need to replace aging water infrastructure. And Ferrari knows that his customer engagement skills will play a critical role in helping the company keep its water systems safe and reliable.
"Some people view our work as an inconvenience and a disruption to their lives,” he said. “But those same people also depend on having water when they turn on the faucet.”
That’s why Cal Water spends an inordinate amount of effort communicating with its customers and affected neighborhoods about upcoming infrastructure projects.
Building It Forward
A great example is the Palos Verdes Peninsula Water Reliability Project, which began construction in June 2018. It involves replacement of part of a major water supply pipeline and installation of a second pipeline and pumping station to make the Peninsula’s water delivery system more reliable for everyday and emergency needs. Though disruptive, the program has been characterized by frequent communiqués from Cal Water to affected homeowners, and frequent web- and phone-based construction updates to the community.
Ferrari credits not only hands-on work in the community but also mentoring discussions with members of his own company for his growing expertise in infrastructure modernization. He looks to Don Nelson, a 28-year Cal Water employee, for example, to provide perspective on how to address and resolve real-time water service issues in the field.
“When I think something is a crisis, Don will say ‘just do this and you’ll be fine,’” said Ferrari. “I like knowing that he has my back, and that he is there to coach and guide me, but also that he trusts me to lead and do what I have to do. In 10 to 15 years, I want to be that guy.”
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