A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Day 10

Day 10

Today was a great day – well most days are pretty good, but a lot of really good things happened today! There were some minor tasks I took care of like arranging for our interns to help out the water/sewer department by shooting some elevations for a sump pump line they were repairing and working a little with the interns on the small storm sewer project they are designing. But the main focus of the day were the following items:

Inspection of Storm Management Activities and a Quick Explanation of Special Service Areas

For some time now many urban areas have been requiring new developments to address stormwater management to minimize flooding and improve water quality. So developers installed features such as detention and retention basins, wetlands, or other facilities to meet these goals. Although they have worked well over the years, the challenge that has evolved over time is the maintenance of these areas. Over the years, weeds grow up and cattails take over. Eventually the facility may no longer function as intended.

Hummingbird Moth

We have one large stormwater facilitiy within a subdivision in our city that over the years was increasingly neglected by the property owner. Fortunately our city requires all developers to either create special service areas (SSA) for these facilities or agree that in the future an SSA could be set up. The SSA works by allowing the city to assess real estate taxes on the parcels lying within the SSA for the purposes stated in the document creating that area. In most cases management of stormwater facilities is an approved use of the funds collected through an SSA. If no management is needed because the property owner or homeowner's association is taking care of it, then no taxes are assessed. However if no maintenance takes place, as in this case, the city begins assessing and managing the facility.

So earlier this year we began assessing taxes for this area and secured a contract with a design/build firm to design and implement a management plan for the area. Today our consultant took us out to inspect the work that has been done. I took many photos of the area, and you can see these on the city's Flickr site at this URL: http://www.flickr.com/photos/cityofgeneva/sets/72157627294641145/

I did add one photo here that was taken by Karen Kase, one of the employees with the consulting firm. (I asked and received permissoin to use her name and photo in this post.) She is an amazing woman – she completely understands this type of work, works hard to achieve results, and does a great job communicating to clients what has been done and what is planned. Anyway, she took this photo one day while she was working on site. She said it is a hummingbird moth. I just had to include it here in this post because it is one of the most incredible photos I have ever seen. She took it with her iphone!

Public Works Staff Meeting

We also had a public works staff meeting today. This is a meeting we have every month that includes all the superintendents and managers in our department. It's interesting and helpful to get together like this to share what each of us is doing and it helps us better coordinate our efforts. We learned that the Emerald Ash Bore has had a devastating impact on our community with thousands of trees left dead. Our street department has a forestry division, and they have been taking down all the trees in the right of way. So far they have removed 225 trees just since May of this year. The superintendent figured he could have about 2,600 more to go. Another interesting bit of information shared is that he was asked to put a sign up at the pay station for our commuter parking garage that says "US Currency Only" because people are paying with coins from Chuckie Cheese and Disney. I figured our dollar was devalued but didn't think it had gotten that low!

ArcGIS Viewer for Microsoft Silverlight

Today I also signed up for the ArcGIS Beta Community so I could get access to try out this awesome application for making web maps. The GIS person in our neighboring community who is just outstanding at creating GIS applications showed us a demo of it at our last group meeting. This application allows you to create a web map through a very easy method. And the resulting map is presented in a very nice user interface. I would highly encourage anyone interesting in creating web maps to join the Beta Community and try out this application. Anyway, I was able to get it installed by the end of the day and look forward to trying it out next week!


A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Day 5

Day 5

The main items grabbing my attention today involved the following:


Today the stripers were in town placing the thermoplastic paint on a few of our newly paved roads. Normally I don't get too involved in the operation because we have a project engineer and technician inspecting and managing the project. But today, we had a resident call because she was concerned that we had planned to stripe a crosswalk at a T-intersection. There had been one leg of a sidewalk connection with a depressed ramp on her side, but no connecting sidewalk on the other side of the road. We've been trying to clean these up and either remove the lone leg or add the other side. In this case we added the receiving ramp. Because the roadway is busy, the engineer had planned on placing a crosswalk at this point. However the resident was worried children would be harmed because the crosswalk might encourage them to cross there rather than further down at the 4-way stop.

Thermoplastic Pavement Markings

I met the resident and her husband at the site along with one of our policemen. Over the years I've found it to be a very valuable experience to work together with the police on traffic-related issues. They bring great insight and ideas. And in the end, they are the ones that have to regulate the traffic. The policeman who met me there is an awesome public safety professional who was able to offer his thoughts from a public safety perspective. He shared that we have crosswalks striped all over town at T-intersections, and the police have had no incidents reported. And I indicated there would be no engineering reason that requires us to stripe or not stripe. After reviewing the situation, we decided that based on the four-way stop being close by, we could skip striping the crosswalk. 

Storm Sewer Project

We regularly receive calls related to stormwater issues throughout the community. Most of the time, they do not meet the criteria required for the city to install additional infrastructure. But occasionally the water nuisance is extensive enough that we decide to construct an improvement. This year, we have plans to install a short segment of storm sewer to alleviate flooding that occurs over multiple properties after even a small amount of rainfall. Our crews will do the work so normally we would not prepare a normal set of plans required for bidding. But because we have some interns who are interested in learning CAD, I decided to set up a drawing for them so they could work on developing the plan for this project. Unfortunately we have a CAD product that based on my experience requires us to spend an enormous amount of time that could be cut significantly if we just changed software. But even though over time the new software would pay for itself in savings from subscription fees, it's that initial purchase price that in this economy is preventing me from changing over. So instead every time we draw something, we spend a lot of time generating the plans. To say it's been frustrating is a total understatement. Anyway, I finally today managed to get the plan set up for them to start. Although I never could get the linestyles to display right. And because I just cannot afford to spend more time with it, I am hoping the interns can figure out what is messed up with that.

Reviewing a Driveway Permit

Normally this would be handled by our building department since they issue driveway replacement permits. But last year we had a company come in–well it was more like a guy with a skidsteer who didn't have a clue what he was doing–and in the process of trying to cut curb completely messed up a newly paved road. Why he waited until we completed the road to cut curb and replace drives is still not evident, but the result was damaged pavement because he didn't properly perform this work. So now we are more cautious about letting anyone cut curb. In this case, the contractor seems to be using a reputable company so I expect they will pick up their permit on Monday after dropping off the necessary certificates of insurance and bond we require to work in the right of way.

School Zones

One of our engineers had noticed that some school zone signs remained in areas where schools had moved out of their buildings. He wondered if we should remove the signs so I had our interns looking into this. Today we checked the city code to determine where the city council had established school zones and discovered there seemed to be some school zones still in existance even though schools are no longer located in those areas. And because we have had so much development in the past several years, there are areas with signed school zones that have not been established through ordinance. So the interns are preparing a report of these areas that can be submitted to administration and perhaps onto the council for consideration.

Some of the miscellaneous tasks that filled the rest of the day included:

  • Meeting with an intern who will start working part time with us later this month. This is an unpaid internship arranged through the high school.
  • Reviewed in the field the site of a proposed development
  • Gave our sign shop the sign design our interns prepared for the school zone area 



A Day in the Life of a Civil Engineer – Day 2


Today was one of those days filled with many micro tasks. And as @motownmutt pointed out yesterday on Twitter, listing tasks is most definitely something an engineer does. So here we go with most of the things I focused on today brought to you in typical engineering list fashion:

Inlet Flow

Picking out Frames and Grates
Early in the morning, I called our sales rep with  EJIW to try to decide if a particular frame and grate would work on some inlets on our Motor Fuel Tax job. These inlets are typical two-foot-diameter concrete structures. They currently have a square frame and grate that does not fit the circular inlet well. This sets up the potential for failure of the pavement because the soil/stone under the road can get washed into the inlet in the holes left where the frame overlaps the basin. The inlet is not placed well near the curb so I cannot use a typical curb inlet like the one in the photo. I could use a circular frame and grate, but the concern with our maintenance staff is that those grates catch debris more easily than some of the others. So, I found a square frame and grate with a round bottom that will fit well on the inlet. But the sales person needed to see if he could get these in time. If not, I’ll have to go with the round ones. 
Hunting Down Road Names
Last week we had given the county GIS department the names of four roads that didn’t match between our system and their GIS. The person who makes the changes at the county called asking for a map and the documents supporting the change. We’ve been researching our road names for about a year now to verify the ones in our GIS are the formally approved name. So I did have documentation for two of them. However, I didn’t realize we had passed along two changes that did not have documentation. So I spent time today looking for the document that changed those road names. Although my search resulted in learning how the roads were established, I never did find the documentation for the names. So rather than spend more time looking, I am going to see if we can have the city council approve the road names so I can record them. Only after we do this and record the change with the county will the county change the name on their GIS.

Reviewing Traffic Signal Agreements
Today I also continued to look over a traffic signal agreement between the city and IDOT that I had been reviewing. Because I could not figure out how the percentage of responsibility was split for both maintenance and energy, I contacted IDOT to ask them. (The district office we work with is always very helpful, and I am always very appreciative of that.) The person I talked to said I would need to look at the individual agreements that were signed each time each signal was improved. So our interns spent part of the day looking for these agreements. Unfortunately we could not find any. I decided to try another route. In my previous position, I was located in the District 3 territory for IDOT. There we had an awesome person who was responsible for all agreements. So I figured if I contact his counterpart in District 1, I can probably get copies of these old agreements. I think the total number of signals involved is between 10 and 15. Once we get these percentages verified, I can move the agreement along for consideration by city council.


Backyard Flooding & Detention Basins

I called back the resident who had concerns over the backyard flooding. This is the one where we discovered the backyard is a detention basin. I explained it is flooding because it is supposed to and it will hold water for some time before draining. However, because of the intense use of the basin by the residents, I explained that more debris does get into the system and occasionally plugs the outlet. So I encouraged the resident to contact us if the water does not seem to recede in a normal amount of time. I also mentioned that the above ground swimming pools that some residents have set up in the bottom of the basin are taking up space that is designed to hold stormwater. Therefore, water could rise faster than is designed. But I did not get the impression they were going to move their pool. We do not have a policy where we require these pools to be moved so I left it at just explaining the consequences.

Securing Project Documentation
Last year we constructed two jobs using ARRA funds. One of these we inspected with in-house staff saving approximately $60,000 based on the costs we incurred for outside inspection on the other one. At this point in the process, I am still working to close out the project documentation – mainly because I have not yet received the proper documentation. The final paperwork I’ve been waiting for has been from the landscaper who continues to give me the same thing over and over that is not correct. Because I tried talking to him once and had to listen to him tell me how he didn’t care if we never hired him again because he is so awesome, I figured it’s easier just to run down the information myself rather than go through that conversation again. By the end of the day, the seed and fertilizer suppliers had agreed to get me the right paperwork so hopefully I can get a little closer to finaling out the job.
Other Miscellaneous Tasks


  • Another engineer and I reviewed the sealcoating schedule for a few public parking lots. This is a major undertaking because the lots are so well used. The project engineer always does a great job letting people know about the work ahead of time so hopefully this year will go as smoothly as last year. But it does take quite a bit of planning.
  • We also discussed creating a map showing all of our road centerlines color-coded based on condition rating and year of repair and year of sealcoating. This map can help us more quickly identify the roads that are best positioned for sealcoating. So I spent some time with our GIS staff to decide how we wanted to set this up.
  • We received comments back from the county about potential access to properties lying within our Southeast Planning area. So I spent some time reviewing the comments.
  • We also researched the boundary information along a road lying between us and our neighboring city. The striping on the road needs to be re-done so we need to determine who has the responsibility to pay for it. I ended up asking our administrative office for a copy of the boundary agreement so will probably get this tomorrow.
  • We are researching the maintenance responsibilities of a detention basin in one of our subdivisions. So our GIS created a spreadsheet of the properties lying within the subdivision, and I passed this along to the person working on the project. Our interns also found the document creating the homeowner’s association for this subdivision. And the document does indicate each property owner in the subdivision is a member of the association, and the association is responsible for the basin.
  • Our planning department needed a copy of the plans for a development that was completed last year so I scanned and sent them. We also sent off related comments because someone is looking at the possibility of a development adjacent to that one, and there are improvements that need to be done when the remainder is improved.
  • We received comments from IDOT about drainage from a proposed development so I reviewed them and passed them along to the engineer reviewing the project.
  • During the morning, I also received a call from a resident who had fallen off their bicycle on one of our roads. So I spent some time documenting the incident and phone call.



U.S. Army Corps Revamps Permit Application Process

Those of you who navigate the U.S. Army Corp of Engineer's (USACE) permit application process might want to check out their new, online site designed to guide applicants through each step of filing a permit application. Visitors to the Website, located at http://www.usace.army.mil/CECW/Documents/avatar2/index.html, are greeted by an avatar who explains the site and offers advice for moving through each step. He encourages users to first watch a video that goes into more detail about how to apply for a permit using this interactive, online method.

USACE Permit Application SiteThe narrator in the video covers each section of the application and shows examples of how to fill out each piece of information. A transcript of the narrative can also be downloaded for further reference. After viewing the video, users can move on to filling out the permit application. A progress bar is provided to show how much is left to be done. The applicant can print out the application after all steps have been completed. 

Although I thought the new, online permit process was a great improvement, one other aspect of the site that impressed me were the sections titled "Why we are involved" and "FAQs." These sections give a  explanations of how the USACE is involved in this process, why the process exists, and other information an applicant is probably wondering about. I think this is very important because those of us who work for government sometimes get so used to all the rules and regulations that we end up taking this knowledge for granted. And then we forget that non-government employees are not going to just know the rules, the process, and the terms. So it is encouraging to see a government agency placing information on a site like this that explains why someone is going through the process.


The Ugly Stepsister

Over the last few years the amount of information related to stormwater practices has dramatically increased. Some days it seems like every e-mail, magazine, or flyer I receive covers some topic related to the stormwater industry. However, it wasn’t until this weekend when our area had the worst rainfall event that I can remember, that I started realizing the primary focus of all this is on stormwater quality. And I am starting to wonder why there is such a comparative lack of information or concern over stormwater quantity.

Each time major rainfall events occur, people have to deal with damage to their homes from flooding/sewer backups. They probably are getting fairly tired of having to hear the engineers, myself included, talk about combined sewers that cause basement backups and about stormwater systems or levees that are only designed to handle a certain sized storm. During these events, the last thing on their minds seems to be the water quality of the receiving stream – it’s the quantity of water rushing into their home! Even in New Orleans, the situation was so bad that it seemed the regulations on water quality were waived to facilitate recovery. So at the end of the day, it makes me wonder why we are focusing so much effort on water quality and ignoring water quantity as if it is the ugly stepsister.
Example of flooding
I am definitely not saying we should cast aside the focus on water quality issues, but I think it is time our industry starts talking about and including the water quantity issues. Otherwise we are only doing half the job. We need to start questioning the standards under which we design – do they need to be updated to address any climate changes? Do we need to change them because damage to homes and businesses is greater today than in the past and could be high enough to push the design year up some? Should these discussions be done on a regional or national basis? What other professions or industries should be brought in on these discussions?

Then we need to take our analysis and recommendations to the politicians who have the obligation to weigh our advice against the wishes of the people and the state of our economy. Today, I don’t believe the public, in general, is aware of the regulations and policies under which storm sewer systems are designed; they have a false sense of security that the pipes will always handle the water. Then when they do not, everyone gets upset. Engineers, along with politicians, need to do a better job educating the public about how these systems are designed, the consequences of those design policies, and the costs for preventing or alleviating flooding. Only after careful consideration of this information can the people convey the right decision to their government representatives.

Then when all parties have weighed the evidence and considered all possibilities and choices, our industry can establish a new guideline for stormwater control that not only addresses water quality, but the quantity as well.

(And by the way, my first recommendation is to figure out a new way of referring to the type of storm event instead of saying it was a “500-year flood.” A local politician from a neighboring community was quoted in our paper complaining how he couldn’t understand how they knew it was greater than a 500-year flood because the town hadn’t been around that long. That terminology is not helping public education efforts.)