The Many Faces of “Free”

Cost of Free Software

Free stuff comes in many different forms. Sometimes there are legitimate, useful things to be had for free. Consider the scores of handy apps to be downloaded free of charge that perform any number of useful tasks. And then there is the pretty ridiculous stuff, designed to lure in anyone with a little too much time on their hands. (Have you checked out the Tickle app that helps you get out of sticky situations?) Triggering the most basic “hunter/gatherer” urge for even more stuff, these apps activate a kind of base hoarding impulse. It all amounts to empty clutter and the user is no better off.

As in any marketplace, the task of the savvy consumer is to be discriminating. At best, free stuff makes your life easier with little headache. Functional gems like 30/30, AroundMe and IFTTT are great examples; at worse, free stuff can complicate your life by introducing another (bad) interface to waste time on before you realize it’s not worth the effort.

Because it is free, there are no guaranties of quality; you accept the packagebugs, clunky interface and allat your own risk. After all, you are getting it for FREE! (So absolutely no complaining or whining about this or that design issue.) Acquiring free apps even invites a certain complacency in the user. We didn’t pay for it, so we really have no grounds to grumble. It is what it is.

What People (and Engineers) Want

People acquire products in order to eliminate a problem or make life easier. The invention of the telephone reduced the need for telegrams, mail delivered by horse-back, and other time-consuming forms of communication. The advent of refrigeration opened up new frontiers in food preparation. A free product is tempting, but for a product to truly make a difference, it should offer real solutions.

HEC-RAS is Free

What HEC-RAS Offers

The first version of HEC-RAS was developed by the Hydrologic Engineering Center of the US Army Corps of Engineers in the early 1990s and was released to the general public in 1995. HEC-RAS is known for performing one-dimensional (and now two-dimensional) water surface profile analysis for rivers and streams for steady flow and unsteady flow boundary conditions. It is used for floodplain encroachment studies, bridge and culvert roadway crossings, dam failure analysis, and stream restoration and alignment studies, as well as a host of other engineering tasks. This software is considered the “gold standard” in this type of hydraulic engineering, both in the USA and abroad. The graphical user interface utilized by HEC-RAS allows the user to perform file management, data entry, and some graphical display of data as well. And, finally, the product is free of charge—all of which has garnered respect and a loyal following. Some would say it is a great example of a free product that offers real value.

What HEC-RAS Does Not Offer

But, folks, HEC-RAS is not perfect. As I see it, there are three things that can frustrate an engineer during the course of a project:

1. Not being able to use one application for the entire project.
HEC-RAS users typically need to use at least three different applications, HEC-RAS, HEC-GeoRAS and ArcGIS, to complete a project. HEC-RAS lacks an easy-to-use graphical interface with CAD and GIS capabilities, 2D and 3D capabilities, support for base maps and other features that are becoming more common in today’s software. Consulting engineers know the value of interactively drawing river alignments, cross sections, roadway crossings and other features directly on the map. In this day and age of high definition 3D graphics and virtual technology, this capability is essential to the professional engineer.

While our GeoHECRAS isn’t free, it adds something fundamental that translates to real time and cost savings. GeoHECRAS integrates HEC-RAS directly with AutoCAD and MicroStation drawing files, ESRI ArcGIS map data, FEMA floodplain maps and other data, allowing the user to integrate hydraulic analysis and geographic data in one application. The laborious process of running a hydraulic analysis and then exporting it to AutoCAD, MicroStation, or ArcGIS to update and manually manipulate data is eliminated. High resolution aerial imagery files, LIDAR, FEMA online flood maps and more can be incorporated into any HEC-RAS model. What this translates to: One application = Significant time savings. Here are some typical comments from our users:

The brilliance of GeoHECRAS is that all of the editing functionality, and software, and model manipulation, and output are all in one contained package.”
Timothy J. Olson, P.E., CFM Water Resources Project Manager, Bolton & Menk, Inc., Maplewood, MN

And here’s another:

“I like that I only need to maintain a single file and that the software manages all of the other supporting files that are used for the project. With the Army Corps of Engineers HECRAS, I have to constantly keep track of the various project, plan, geometry, and flow files for each iteration of the analysis. Whereas, GeoHECRAS manages all of this data for me and allows me to easily focus on the actual engineering involved in the project.”
Tyler Branch, E.I., Civil Engineer Intern, Forte & Tablada, Inc., Baton Rouge, LA

2. Hidden time cost associated with outdated workflows.
Manually entering cross sections and other data can really slow down a project—especially when there are multiple iterations in a project or when dealing with various data sources.

GeoHECRAS has automated workflows built into HEC-RAS to really leverage data—both locally and in the cloud—to speed up the work necessary to setup and complete a HEC-RAS project. Whether it is working with multiple elevation data sources (i.e., contours, TINs, LIDAR, elevation grids, survey points), to automatically cutting cross sections, to assignment of land use coverage data as Manning’s roughness, to optimizing bridge designs, to automatically computing floodplain encroachments and floodways, and more, GeoHECRAS has you covered. For example, as one (of many) of our users have told us:

I can load my updated topography into GeoHECRAS and have the Extract Geometry command automatically update the cross sections I want to revise. It saves me hours of manual work. GeoHECRAS makes HEC-RAS modeling a much easier and streamlined process, saving me at least 75% of my time on HEC-RAS projects.”
Megan Busch, LEED AP Staff Engineer Brooker Engineering, PLLC Suffern, NY

3. Inability to get help when you need it.
This is a huge source of stress and time loss. The project can come to a stand-still when you don’t get the technical help and expertise you need.

Here’s the thing: CivilGEO thrives on providing technical support. We have technical engineers available around the clock to answer your questions and get your project back on track. Whether you are on the other side of the planet or right here in the Midwest, your questions take priority. We don’t just answer generic questions; we answer questions specific to your project. Some find our technical support in a class of its own. Boris Neumann, a project manager at M+G Ingenieure in Feldkirch, Austria, claims that, “(he) never met a company that takes their customer service so seriously and are so supportive.” And Dingaan Mahlangu, P.Eng., Director, Principal Hydrologist at SRK Consulting, Pretoria, South Africa, commented, the technical support that is provided by CivilGEO is very much superior to what I have experienced with other vendors.” Enough said.

Something that is “free” can mean many things. The product could be a waste of time or, in some cases, the value is undeniably there. But, there are times when more is needed to provide a complete solution. It isn’t necessarily free, but then “free” doesn’t always deliver what you need.