Traceability: Knowing How Your Pipe Assets Got Where They Are

07-10-2020 12:28 PM
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By Tom Coolidge and Tom DeWitte

“Tell me about yourself.” How many times have we all heard those words from others trying to understand us and our life journey to a point in time? The natural gas distribution industry and transmission industry have similar but different life journeys to an improved level of safety resulting from better knowledge of their assets. Both initiatives behind these stories now are almost ten years old.

In the distribution industry, the initiative is known as Tracking and Traceability. In the transmission industry, it’s known as Traceable, Verifiable, and Complete. The Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA) launched both initiatives.

For those not familiar with Tracking and Traceability in the natural gas distribution industry, this initiative is about improving the information a natural gas organization maintains about an asset, such as a pipe segment, a valve or a fitting. It is important that a natural gas organization knows who manufactured the asset, who enhanced the asset (i.e. applied a protective coating), by whom and when was the asset tested, and by who, where and when was the asset installed. Like very protective parents, safety demands the need to know from where the asset came, where the asset has been, what did it do, and where is it currently. Through the efforts of multiple industry organizations, including the Plastic Pipe Institute, the American Gas Association, pipe manufacturers, and others, Tracking and Traceability was born to supply the facts required for a better answer.

In the natural gas transmission industry, PHMSA introduced the Traceable, Verifiable, and Complete requirement. Traceable in this context means records that can be clearly linked to original information about a pipe network component. For instance, this might be a pipe mill record or purchase requisition. Verifiable records confirm the documentation used for traceability. An example of a verifiable record is a pressure test complemented by pressure tests or field logs. Complete records are those that finalize documentation of a pipe network component. For example, a complete pressure testing record should identify a specific segment of pipe, who conducted the test, the duration of the test, the test medium, temperatures, accurate pressure readings, and elevation information as applicable.

While, as you can see, the journeys are in different forms, they bear obvious similarities. And, a geographic information system (GIS) is at the heart of both.

Capturing the Life Journey of an Asset

Capturing a complete traceable set of information for an asset requires an information system with unique capabilities. A traceable system of record needs to be able to store the following types of information about an asset:

  • Documents
  • Photos
  • Digital descriptors
  • Location
  • Geospatial representation

To meet the needs of a gas system, this information system also needs to be able to provide this information to the gas organization staff both in the office and in the field.  When in the field this information needs to be available whether the mobile device is connected or operating in a disconnected state.  That is a pretty tall order of capabilities.  Of all the different types of information systems available today, only a GIS has the capability to store all these components of information an asset collects over its life journey. 

Over the course of an asset’s life journey there will also be many tests and inspections.  These, too, need to be associated to the asset for the asset’s life journey. Additionally, these inspections and tests need to be available to employees both in the office and in the field.  A field cathodic protection technician needs to not only know where a cathodic protection test point is located, what type it is, and who manufactured it, the technician also needs to have access to the history of inspections taken at the test point.

This is why the gas industry is increasingly looking to their GIS as the foundation of their plans for implementing a system of record that meets the needs of traceability.

Tracking Changes to an Asset over Time

Meeting the needs of Traceability also requires knowing when the information about an asset was changed, who made the change, and what was changed. This set of information needs to cover every change made to the information about the asset over the life of the asset. Accomplishing this requires both the ability to track the edits made to the asset record, and the ability to archive the history of changes.  This audit trail of changes to the GIS-maintained assets must be persisted for the life of the asset.

The greater the portion of an asset’s life journey that can have an unbroken audit trail, the more verifiable the information about the asset. Accomplishing an unbroken audit trail of the operational life journey of an asset requires a GIS which is also a fully integrated platform.  One that allows the editor tracking to begin in the field when the asset is initially installed and placed into service. This field-initiated audit trail must be part of the GIS’s security system for capturing who recorded the installation of the asset.  This capture of who recorded the installation, and when was the installation recorded, must be system managed so that users are unable to “fake” the system by manipulation of the recorded date time, and user information.

Verifying the completeness of the information about an asset includes verifying the integrity of the information.  An integrity that can be sustained as an unbroken audit trail for the operational life journey of the asset.      


A modern GIS, one that has been architected to be a platform solution, capable of collecting new assets both in the field and in the office is the foundation technology for a successful traceability program.  The information collected about an asset includes its documents, manufacturer specifications, installation photos, location description, geospatial representation, inspections, and tests. This complete set of information needs to be available to utility staff when they need it, regardless of location or device.  The verifiability of this information needs to include a system-managed audit trail capability, which cannot be manipulated and persists as an unbroken recording of the life journey of the asset.

Only a modern GIS can answer the question; “so, tell me about yourself”.

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Technical Lead for Natural Gas Industry at Esri