March 2017 Vol. 72 No. 3


NASSCO Standard Bearers: Rod Thornhill

EDITOR’S NOTE: NASSCO just completed its 41th year and continues to set standards for the assessment and rehabilitation of underground infrastructure. As the association continues its phenomenal growth, this series profiles those who have made significant contributions and impacted the continued acceptance and growth of trenchless rehabilitation methods. This is a bi-monthly installment in a series of articles exploring the history of NASSCO through the eyes of industry leaders.

This month, NASSCO honors Rod Thornhill considered to be the father of the renowned NASSCO Pipeline Assessment and Certification Program.

Growing up in the Alabama countryside, making the decision to attend nearby Auburn University for my degree in civil engineering, was a natural one. I graduated from Auburn on a Thursday in 1976. The following Monday, I was in my first manhole. Newly employed by McCullough & Associates in Jackson, MS, I was involved in SSES [Sewer System Evaluation Survey] projects, smoke testing, manhole inspection and other technologies, all giving me a solid foundation upon which to build my career.

During that time, the Environmental Protection Agency Construction Grant Programs were just getting off the ground. Cities were granted – not loaned – up to 75 percent of the funds necessary to build treatment plants and repair sewer lines. In order to qualify, however, studies had to be done to identify I/I [infiltration and inflow] and the overall condition of systems. My involvement with SSES was timed perfectly.

The only time I ever interviewed for a job was right out of college, but that’s the way this industry seems to work for many of us. If you know your stuff, you get recognized and recruited. I like to think it’s because we are all such talented and wonderful people, but I do believe supplying qualified workers for our high-demand industry also plays a role. That’s why it is critical to support young professionals interested in a career in underground infrastructure.

From Jackson I moved on to a project in Tupelo, MS – the birthplace of Elvis Presley – and was there when he died. After that, I worked all across the state of Florida, then in Houston, Nashville and, finally, in 1985, in Dallas, where I have remained and am currently self-employed. I began working for myself in 1994, doing special projects for cities where I acted as an extension of their staff. If they needed training, data analysis or a close review of their TV inspection results, I provided user-friendly materials to help guide them in putting the findings to practical use.

This is what led me to NASSCO. I saw first-hand the volumes of CCTV data being produced, and knew there would be even more in the future, but it was clear the data had a very short shelf-life. There were dozens, perhaps hundreds, of codes, meaning there was not one single code that allowed people to collect data, compare it, and use it five, 10 or 20 years down the road. It was like the Tower of Babel – we needed one, clear language to collect and share this valuable information.


Path to PACP

I set out to find a trade organization to help support my mission to standardize, collect and place CCTV data in a national depository so cities could collaborate and monitor changing conditions over time. I considered WEF, APWA and other organizations, but could not find the perfect fit. Then one day in the spring of 2000 I ran into Grant Whittle outside of the U.S. capitol. We were there for a WEF briefing, and learned we were both from Alabama. I asked him if he had any ideas about an association that could help standardize data, and he suggested NASSCO. Grant put me in touch with Mike Burkhard, the executive director of NASSCO at the time, and he jumped right onboard. It didn’t take long for Mike to begin seeking out other organizations that may have collected and standardized data so we could learn from their experience. Mike soon learned about England’s WRc [Water Research Centre] and the ball started rolling.

At WEFTEC in Anaheim the following fall, Mike and I met in person for the first time. We also formally announced our intent to see if there was interest from the industry, and there was. Mike and I began a process to put the pieces together and realized that in order to succeed, we needed four major components to what was originally named Pipeline Assessment Program; we later modified the name to Pipeline Assessment Certification Program [PACP]:


  • A book that defines and explains the codes.


  • A training class that would provide first-hand education on using the codes.


  • A standard database enforcing proprietary rules for exchanging data on utilities.


  • The collection of enough data so we could pull results by city, create baselines and promote asset management.


Working with WRc to develop the program, we self-funded the project through the sale of books. Mike and I had our first meeting in June of 2001 with Phil Wildbore and Andy Drinkwater from WRc, along with NASSCO representatives Heather Myers, Lynn Osborn, Gerry Muenchmeyer, John Jurgens, Marilyn Shepard and Greg Anderson. WRc took our input back with them to England and retranslated their codes into American English. Phil emailed the results to us on July 4, 2001, noting the irony in his working the day we Americans celebrated beating the British.

We reconvened in Atlanta to further evaluate the program content, conduct QC measures, and take PACP to the next level. That was on Sept. 11, 2001, the day our country was attacked. There were no flights going in or out for several days, so while we were stranded, we continued to work through the edits all week long.

The first version of PACP was released the following January, in time for a training class at UCT in Houston. That was not the first PACP class, though, as Greg Anderson trained a class the week before. Luckily, he caught some last-minute typos and errors that were corrected, along with others I identified as I trained at UCT. We realized we weren’t quite ready for prime time, so we put a hold on the program and spent a couple of months double-checking the course content. From the time the program was launched until just a few years ago, I spent a lot of my time training and traveling across the country to promote PACP, trying to get in front of as many groups as possible.

Today, my focus has shifted. Since we have successfully accomplished the standardization of codes, my hope for the future of PACP is that we collect and use the aggregate data to really get an accurate reading of the condition of our sewer systems. We need a reasonable grade of all the pipes inspected with PACP from different cities across the country to provide a national reservoir of CCTV inspection data, which will allow us to do great things. It will also support NASSCO members – comprised mostly of contractors – to demonstrate to municipalities the need for underground rehabilitation.

Other organizations are beginning to see the importance of this valuable data collection concept, including Oklahoma State University, which has collaborated with NASSCO on the One Voice for Sewer Condition Assessment and Asset Management initiative. My hope is that NASSCO continually builds on its many achievements made through PACP, and continues to stay on the forefront of setting standards for the assessment, maintenance and rehabilitation of underground infrastructure through a renewed commitment to identify effective uses of the massive data, which will benefit our entire industry.

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