Drinking Water and Backflow Prevention Magazine Feb. 99

Using Software to Manage your Backflow Prevention Program
by
Nancy Morris (former V.P. EngSoft Solutions)
1999 EngSoft Solutions

  • When to start using software to manage your backflow prevention program?
  • Should you develop software yourself or buy an off-the-shelf software package?
  • How to find the best software package for your needs?
  • How to do a business case to justify purchasing software?
With 23 years of experience at IBM, I've seen innumerable software programs come and go. As a user of those programs, not a programmer, I've been through all the possibilities: the process of developing software in-house, buying off-the-shelf software packages, and customizing off-the-shelf software so that it would better meet specialized needs. All these experiences have influenced this article.

When does it make sense to start using software to manage your backflow prevention program?

If you already have an active backflow prevention program and have an organized system on index cards, approximately 100 assemblies is probably manageable. This may, however, be time-consuming when it comes to sending follow-up notices and pulling together reports.

There is a difference between "tracking" backflow preventers and "managing" your backflow prevention program. Tracking may be done either on index cards or a spreadsheet. However, to manage your program, you need a complete system -- a process of data tracking, retaining historical information, data manipulation, letters with word processing capability, test forms, and reporting functions.

Regarding when to begin using software, I subscribe to the sooner-rather-than-later theory. Why? To get a handle on the paperwork before it takes over my office and my life. The sooner you start using software, the more comfortable you will become with your computer and your software so that as your backflow program grows, your record-keeping is already organized.

If you are just starting your program, let a software package assist you in establishing your CCC program and procedures. The majority of software packages provide Test Forms, pre-written letters with merge fields from the database, and Manufacturers, Models, Types, and Sizes already in tables. You may set test frequency for each assembly and keep your records organized from day one. In this way you retain history from the start of your program.

In addition, some software packages provide letters to customers regarding surveys/inspections and the ability to record the results of those inspections. Automatic reminders of when tests are due and when 1st, 2nd and 3rd notices must go out are likely to improve your compliance statistics. Standard compliance reports can save you tons of time over summarizing manually. You can choose a software package that has a built-in report writer in order to create your own specialized reports as you need them and save that format for future use with other data.

You may find that a software system takes as much time as a paper system to record and maintain your data. Generally the primary benefits and savings occur in these areas:

  1. The ease of identifying tests due, creating and sending notices and follow-up notices and mailing labels.
  2. The ability to efficiently find any data stored in your system; i.e. service connections, all assembly information, historical information, testers, etc.
  3. The speed of finding an assembly record and entering its test results.
  4. The ability to manipulate the data and produce useful reports to assist you in managing your program.

Should you develop backflow software in-house?
or
Buy an off-the-shelf package?

When to consider developing your own backflow software?

1. When the actual user is proficient with database programs, has the time to devote to programming and there is a small quantity (i.e., less than 100) of backflow prevention assemblies to track. You may start with a simple spreadsheet program and create your letters/notices in a separate word processor. This, however, soon becomes inefficient. With higher volumes of records you will recognize the need to integrate assembly and service address information with the word processing of letters and notices.

2. When your organization requires a function that no software vendor provides. The software packages available today are much more sophisticated and flexible than 3-4 years ago and software vendors continue to make improvements. Investigate what is available and ask specific questions of software companies before assuming you cannot get your needs met with an off-the-shelf package. In the long run, this may save you a great deal of time, frustration and money.

Things to be aware of regarding in-house development:

When you cannot locate software that meets your special needs, you want a thorough database to maintain information and provide all the function you want and need. Such a database requires a great deal of effort to design: an on-going process of giving the programmer(s) your requirements, reviewing what they produce, refining your requirements, and testing the program. If you have ever been through this process, you'll agree that it is difficult to list all your requirements, no less explain them clearly to a programmer in a way that they understand well enough to satisfy your needs. This is generally a lengthy, time-consuming and expensive process. Also realize that once a programmer develops or modifies a software package for you, any future enhancements or updates require additional programming expense.

Why buy an off-the-shelf software package?

Take full advantage of the thousands of hours software companies have invested in creating a program that is tailored to backflow prevention management and is maintained for this niche market. An important benefit is that a software package lets you get started immediately.

Most software vendors provide updates to their program as part of their technical support contract. Your organization benefits from on-going improvements with added features and continuous user-driven enhancements. You'll have state-of-the art software for years to come without incurring programming fees.

How do you find the best software package for your needs?

Find out what's available: Read DW&BP magazine, ABPA News, your local chapter or group publication, etc. Browse the internet.

Talk to other water utilities -- see what they use to track their backflow assemblies and what they like and don't like about their current tracking method. Attend backflow conferences and visit the vendor exhibits -- you can get a personal demo, ask questions specific to your situation, and meet the people you'll be working with if you purchase their product.

Evaluating software programs:

This is the "test drive" stage. Advertising is only ink on paper; here is where the rubber meets the road. Call the software companies and ask for a working demo of their software to try out for yourself. Ask the company to provide you with a list of references. Take note of the turnaround time in which the information is delivered to you and the manner in which your questions are answered.

What is important to you? As you evaluate the demos, recall specific situations when you wanted to accomplish a task and found it difficult with your current method, i.e. writing a new letter, printing labels, creating a certain list of assemblies with specific criteria, etc. Can this software do those tasks easily? Is the software flexible; can you adjust it to work the way you want it to? Does the software allow assembly look-up for test entry based on the data field(s) you like to use? Is it easy to search based on any field?

There are CCC software programs that run the gamut from very basic tracking of devices with no frills, to software that is very in-depth and thoroughly covers all areas of managing a CCC program. A few software products include a built-in word processor so that any number of letters may be created and formatted as you wish. Backflow management software programs provide standard reports; some include an integrated report writer as part of the software package which allows efficient creation of custom reports. Some programs allow a search for information based on any field in the database; others have limited look-up capabilities.

As you review the demos, see if the instructions and paperwork sent with the demo are user friendly and thorough. Can you utilize the demonstration software for yourself or are you only viewing a presentation of the program? As you look at the demos, call each company with at least one question (using their toll-free number) to test their knowledge and response time. Is your question answered promptly and thoroughly? Do you feel a sense of confidence in the company? Once you decide which software programs you like the best, be sure to call their references.



How to document a business case.

Once you choose a software package, you may need to justify its purchase with a cost vs. benefit analysis or business case. There are three major components: (1) assumptions, (2) costs, (3) estimated benefits.

Assumptions:

This is a critical, but often forgotten, part of your analysis. No one can predict the future. But you can make intelligent assumptions and state them clearly. Once your assumptions are accepted, your justification is off on the right foot. Make reasonable assumptions and document them.

Cost:

Obtain a written proposal or quote from the software vendor for the software package, annual technical support contract, and any other services necessary to provide a working system, for example, importing data from your current database to the new software package. On-site installation and training will probably not be necessary if you are purchasing a single-user version of the software.

Benefit Analysis:

Estimate the time you believe you can save using the new software package over your current method (whether it is index cards or another software program). Show this in hours saved per month. To support your estimates, use the demo of the software: Test how long it takes to look up an assembly and enter its test results. How long does it takes to identify tests due and send the first test due notices. How quickly can you identify overdue tests and send 2nd and 3rd notices or run a sample compliance report.

Often time savings result from being able to manipulate all the data related to your backflow program easily providing useful information. When doing your estimate, include the time saved pulling together information for annual reports or ad hoc reports; for example, how many devices from a specific manufacturer failed initial test from 1/98 through 9/98? This type of summary information can be invaluable in managing your program but would take many hours if done manually or if your software were unable to easily perform this type of search.

If possible, obtain cost per hour from your Accounting Department. This hourly rate should include: salary, benefits (vacation, medical, etc.) , office overhead, retirement fund, etc. The rate will generally be in the $25 - $50 range. When you have the total estimated annual hours saved, multiply it times the rate per hour for the estimated annual savings. A sample business case follows.



Proposal to Purchase XYZ Software
Example

Assumptions:
  • XYZ Software will remain viable a minimum of 5 years (through 2004)
  • Current backflow assemblies being tracked: 800
  • Estimated increase of 5% annually for the next 5 years, based on previous 5 years experience
  • Rate/hour: $30 (provided by Accounting Dept., includes overhead)
  • No change in current hardware is required to accommodate XYZ software.
  • Preparation of one Annual Report for the State plus two ad hoc reports as required during the year for management and analysis of situations.
Cost:
  • Software Package: $2,000 (includes 90 days free Technical Support)
  • Technical Support Annual Contract: $300 (includes upgrades and new version releases)
  • TOTAL COST in YEAR #1: $2,300
Benefit Analysis:
Notices/Letters:

Includes: identifying tests due, mail merge letter creation, mailing labels

  • 1st notices: 2 hr./mo. saved over current method
  • 2nd notices: 2 hr./mo. saved due to ease of identifying overdue responses
  • 3rd notices: 1 hr./mo. saved due to ease of identifying overdue responses
  • Sending Inspection/Survey notices: 1 hr./mo. saved over current method
  • Total Estimated Hours saved sending notices: 6 hr./mo. = 72 hr./yr.
Test Results:
  • 800 tests entered in Year #1 @ estimated savings of 1 minute/test due to ease of look-up, data entry shortcuts provided by software, point-and-click technology, and automatic assignment of next test due date.
  • Total Estimated Hours saved on Test Results: 800 minutes = 13 hr./year Reporting:
  • Est. Time savings in preparing annual report: 8 hr./year
  • Est. Time savings in preparing ad hoc reports as needed: 8 hr./year
  • Total Estimated Hours saved Reporting = 16 hr./year TOTAL ESTIMATED SAVINGS in YEAR #1: 101 hr. x $30 per hour = $3,030

    Conclusion:
    Estimated Savings exceed Cost in Year #1 by >$700. Benefits will continue to accrue years #2 through #5 with minimal additional expense; i.e. $300/year Service Contract and equipment upgrades as computer industry standards change.

    Prepared by:



    Depending on your situation, i.e. going from manual tracking to a software package vs a large program moving to a new software package, you will want to focus the business case on the benefits particular to your situation. It is also appropriate to list intangible benefits, such as: more effective use of available staff and anticipated improvement in compliance.

    A business case may be expanded to include additional years. This is recommended for a system with multiple concurrent users, on-site installation and training expenses, or if new computer equipment would be required. Since the cost of the Service Support Contract in years 2 through 5 would be much less than the savings for these years, a pay-back period of 1.5 to 2.5 years would be expected, even with a higher initial cost for the software, services and hardware required.

    In Conclusion.

    • When to start using software? The sooner-the-better unless you manage fewer than 100 devices and will remain that size for years to come.
    • Develop software in-house or buy an off-the-shelf package? You'll most likely save time, money, and reduce frustration by using a software package unless you have checked with the software vendors and are certain they cannot meet your requirements.
    • How to locate the best software package for you? Get demos and actually use the software packages to make comparisons. Ask the software vendor's references specific questions.
    • Doing a business case may not be required in your situation. However, a positive cost/benefit analysis may result in your request being approved more quickly.
    Nancy Morris is the former Vice President of Marketing and Finance for EngSoft Solutions, makers of XC2 Backflow Prevention Software (1.800.761.4999)

    Prior to joining EngSoft Solutions in 1996, Ms. Morris held management positions in Accounting, Finance, Business Controls, and Information Systems at IBM Manufacturing and Headquarters locations. Other Articles
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