A New Way To Picture America's Aging Assets

Try not to think of pink elephants. That silly proposition makes us chuckle when we hear it because we know that, as soon as someone says, “pink elephants,” we will unavoidably visualize pink elephants. We think in pictures. Hearing or reading words triggers mental images of what they mean.

Even a nondescript term such as “infrastructure” conjures up something in our mind’s eye. Most people associate infrastructure with roads and bridges—a natural response in the automobile-centric society in the United States.

In the context of this article, we are talking about civil infrastructure. As a matter of fact, you might decide that a better term for it would be civilization infrastructure. That’s a mouthful, but it better conveys the idea that the level of civilization, which all of us are able to enjoy every day in this country, heavily depends on the integrity of our so-called civil infrastructure, which means more than roads alone.

To demonstrate the potential for electrical service work opportunities in infrastructure, we propose a new way of looking at the concept of civil infrastructure. We begin this process by stratifying civil infrastructure into three physical layers, stacked one on top of the other, this way:

Surface infrastructure, like many middle children, can often seem to get into the greatest trouble and capture the most attention when, for example, an interstate highway bridge suddenly collapses. Surface infrastructure was a prominent focus of a skinny little book, “America in Ruins,” by Pat Choate and Susan Walter, which quickly grabbed national attention and initially popularized common usage of the word “infrastructure” in the early 1980s.

Overhead infrastructure—e.g., electrical and communications distribution and transmission lines—from time to time can briefly upstage its other two counterparts when one of those increasingly frequent “once-in-a-century” storms comes through and cuts off power and telecommunications.

Subsurface infrastructure is out of sight, out of mind—until a backhoe operator accidentally cuts through a buried fiber optic telecommunications cable. Within a few days, however, that subsurface line sinks right back into the obscurity of a once-famous, but now-forgotten, occupant of the local cemetery.

The components of these three layers of infrastructure all have lifecycles, too. Formally or informally, all of the products and services that comprise the layers of infrastructure have become ideas through some sort of research and development. Through manufacturing and installation (implementation of the idea), they have been produced and put into place, giving form to their layer of infrastructure. They have also entered a lifetime of usage in which—in an ideal world—they should receive preservative maintenance and upkeep.

Charting the research and development, manufacturing and installation, and maintenance and service segments of component lifecycles, we might label the steps in their evolution this way:

Now, if we mesh the concepts of the layers and the lifecycles, we get a three-by-three matrix providing us with a brand-new way to envision infrastructure and, better yet, a strong suggestion of new business opportunities for electrical contractors that goes well beyond roads and bridges.

Electrical contractors can use this matrix and fill in the cells with projects that reflect current operations and/or business opportunities in their own market areas. While there are fewer work activities for them under the heading of “development,” which will ordinarily be in the purview of major university and corporate-sponsored research and development efforts, opportunities are growing that involve ECs early in the development process (e.g., integrated project delivery or manufacturer requests for involvement). Otherwise, there are limitless possibilities that could fit the cells under the headings of “production” and “maintenance.”

Because our abiding philosophy is geared to encourage electrical contractors to focus on service and maintenance work, we urge forward-thinking contractors to think strategically—or, even more so, categorically—about the potential for delivering electrical field service to support electrical and communications infrastructure. Having a focused infrastructure service delivery strategy will be key to success.

When the authors and sponsors of “America in Ruins” sounded the alarm about the country’s crumbling infrastructure in 1981, they pointed out that the problem of decaying public assets was already 20 years old. In other words, to accept their premise, we are now looking at the results of neglect that has gone on for more than 50 years. 

Incidentally, there are infrastructure problems on facilities that were not included in that little book because those facilities did not even exist when it was published. Clearly, there is plenty of work to be done.

About the Author

Andrew McCoy

Freelance Writer
Responsible for millions of dollars in construction research, Dr. McCoy maintains a teaching schedule for undergraduate and graduate courses at Virginia Tech. Recognized for his study of service-based contracting by ELECTRI International and award-wi...
About the Author

Fred Sargent

Freelance Writer
Former CEO of a nationally-ranked electrical contracting firm, now with 45 years experience in the business, Fred Sargent today focuses on programs to benefit the advancement of service and maintenance work in the overall sales mix of electrical cont...

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