Consumers Energy improving infrastructure in Midland

Improving infrastructure isn’t just a catch phrase for Consumers Energy in Midland right now.  The energy utility will spend most of this year upgrading its natural gas infrastructure to some 2,233 mostly residential customers in the city. The project began several weeks ago and is expected to conclude in mid-November, according to Terry DeDoes, a spokesman for the company.   

DeDoes says the goal is to replace aging piping, some of it prone to leaks,  that was installed in the city of Midland before 1955.   

The extensive project is part of Consumers’ state-wide Enhanced Infrastructure Replacement Plan (ERIP), an effort that began in 2012 and represents a $2 billion investment.  DeDoes said the Midland project furthers Consumers’ goal of being carbon neutral by 2040.   

A business or process achieves “carbon neutrality” when its operations are in a state of net-zero carbon dioxide emissions.  
Consumers’ Matt Priem (left) and Scott Derocher inspect the new 2-inch diameter gas main which is about to be pulled through a bore hole.
Project Details

In all, some 24.5 miles “gas main” piping will be replaced; most of the existing pipe is metal. 

This does not count the miles of “service” pipe that connects to the main, terminating at the gas meter on the residence or building.  Most of the main piping will be plastic pipe two inches in diameter while some boast a diameter of four, six or eight inches. Service piping is also plastic and 5/8 inch or 1 1/8 inch in diameter, depending on the customer’s need.  

Sections of existing underground main pipe were fastened together with metal couplings when installed years ago. These couplings, DeDoes notes, tend to loosen over time, resulting in gas leaks, some of which require an emergency service visit by Consumers.

“We find older equipment – such as the underground main pipe system – requires more inspection, more need for leak surveys and simply issues with maintaining the pipes’ integrity.  This is what we are looking to replace first,” he notes. 

Sections of the new plastic pipe are fused together with heat, creating a bond that is structurally stronger than the actual pipe, according to Matt Priem, a Consumers senior field leader.

Further eliminating the need to join sections together:  Crews work to extend a single section of main to as much as 300 feet long, much longer than a metal pipe section used in the initial installation, now some 60 years old.  Each reel of the new plastic piping delivered to various work sites has 500 feet – in one piece.
A horizontal drilling machine remains stationary while a crew member operating the unit communicates by radio with a crew member electronically monitoring movement of the probe.
The overall effort in Midland has been engineered in eight phases, Priem notes.  This approach simplifies planning, acquiring materials and equipment and scheduling crews.  With few exceptions, it’s the work of 92  Consumers employees, not contractors, in the field.   Interestingly, most of them live in the Midland area, eliminating long commutes or lodging issues.  

Most workdays, crews are working on three different areas in the City.  

On  Site

A Catalyst Midland reporter recently visited the Boston St. – E. Ashman St. area to learn more about the work underway.   It was about 18 degrees, cloudy and somewhat icy in the work area.   It was cold enough that a horizontal boring machine could not be used until later in the day when it was warmer. This is because running water is used in the process for cooling and debris removal.    

A safety meeting came first among five managers and leaders, each with a hard hat, safety classes and neon vest.  Priem says these are called “tailboard” meetings and are mandatory to plan the day’s work and to acknowledge and plan for that day’s potential and real hazards.  That day, ice and cold were among the hazards.  

“It’s important,” Priem says.  “Each work site and day are different in so many ways. We attempt to identify any hazards that might occur and then decide on an action plan, so we are always prepared.”   Closing, each participant acknowledges the discussion with their signature.   
This is a new main ready to be attached to the bore pipe and be pulled 300 feet up Boston Street.
Neighborhood Upgrades

The process began months ago, with Consumers engineers mapping the original installation and noting needed changes.  In this case, whole neighborhoods in the City were set for upgrades.  Materials and crew were gathered and prepped for the task ahead. Before a shovel goes in the ground,  MISS DIG locates and flags all public utilities– gas, electric, cable, telephone -- are located in the work zone. Now, Consumers’ crews get to work.

The work area is easy to spot because of dozens of LED caution lights flashing front and rear from motorized equipment, such as backhoes, all-purpose “bread trucks” (portable workshops), dump trucks, big and small pickup trucks and highly specialized equipment like the horizontal directional drilling machine.  

Often, when flags show multiple utilities in one area, a “spot” hole is dug, usually by a backhoe operator and to a depth of about four feet.  This allows crews to see what goes where. Sidewalks are often broken up and removed in this process as well.  Winter work can be difficult because the soil is often deeply frozen.  A backhoe fitted with a chisel arm is used to break up the frozen few inches and then a bucketed backhoe completes the dig.  

These areas are easy to see because of the orange barricades erected around each excavation site.  The holes stay open until all work is completed at that spot and then soil is returned to  the hole and the surface smoothed.   Renovation of lawns and hard surfaces will be made later and at no expense to the property owner. 

Impressive Machine

Perhaps the most impressive work is that of the two-man crew responsible for the drilling machine.  It is about as big as a medium-size SUV but much more “chunky.”  

This is the machine that initially snakes a multi-section pipe through the ground where the new pipe will lie. The operator is in radio contact with a colleague up front of the boring, using a machine that tracks the bore in real time and alerts the operator of adjustments changes needed in depth or direction to arrive at the end point.  In this case, that was 300 feet away, terminating near Ashman St.  

The process was so accurate that the new bore was about 18 inches away and  alongside the old pipe.

Next, a different crew attached a coupler to connect the bore with the new main pipe and drew it back through the original hole, 300 feet away – and ready to connect with another section of the main.

This process will be repeated countless times to total 24.5 miles of boring throughout the City before the project finishes up.  

Hooking up the new main with a much smaller service line to the customer’s gas meter is much less intensive or destructive of the site.

The new system will be put in service when the entire project is essentially done – now tentatively scheduled for mid-November, Priem noted.  Pilot lights that were temporarily extinguished by the work will be re-lit by Consumer crews at no expense to the owner.

Similar projects are now underway in metropolitan Detroit, Lansing and Kalamazoo, according to Consumers’ DeDoes.


Read more articles by Ed Hutchison.

Journalism, teaching journalism and gardening are passions that continue to delight Ed Hutchison, a Midland native and resident for most of his life. He is the author of the book “Digging in the Dirt …Friendly Tips for the Gardener in All of Us” and hundreds of newspaper-published garden columns.   He has worked at The Saginaw News and  Dow Corning Corporation and taught at Delta College and Central Michigan University.