Solutions for Aging Water Infrastructure

Aug. 31, 2017

The pipelines that municipalities use to deliver drinking water to their residents take a beating. Large cities pump tens of millions of gallons of water to their customers every day. And many of the pipes that municipalities rely on to transport drinking water and treat wastewater are coated with decadesworth of grime and pollutants.

It’s little surprise then, that a growing number of municipalities face a problem: Their aging pipes are so filled with sludge and biofilm that it is reducing the speed at which they can pump water. This means that pumps have to work harder in these systems, increasing the energy costs and the expenses that these cities face when providing drinking water to residents and commercial buildings.

Other pipelines are so calcified that they are pocked with leaks and plagued by water-main breaks that can buckle roads and create gaping sinkholes.

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Replacing aging pipes is an expensive and time-consuming process, but for some municipalities it’s the only choice. For others, though, industrial pipe-cleaning services can unclog their pipelines, identify potential future problems, and buy cities and towns some time before they have to invest in a larger-scale replacement program.

This is why industrial pipe-cleaning companies are seeing growing business today. Municipal officials might not like it, but they have little choice: They have to address the problems afflicting their aging water infrastructure. Industrial pipe-cleaning is often the best and most affordable option for them.

“Municipalities are definitely more invested today in pipe cleaning,” says Nick Mathey of Schaumburg, Illinois’ Pipe View America. “You see the same municipalities year after year sending out for bid. They see the value in it. They are also starting to rely more on GIS, which is a great tool for them to document their pipe infrastructure. They’ll hire services to work on one part and then another the following year. The tools are making it easier for them to document and keep track of their progress, and the aging of their pipes is forcing them to take action.”

It’s a good thing, too. The nation’s municipal pipelines are in need of some serious attention. Regular cleaning to remove debris, biofilm, and sludge is at least one step municipalities can take to maintain pipes and prevent more serious problems from popping up.

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The American Society of Civil Engineers released an attention-getting report in 2013 on the health of the country’s drinking-water infrastructure. The news wasn’t good. According to the report, much of the infrastructure that US residents rely on to get their drinking water is nearing the end of its useful life. The cost of replacing all the aging pipes that are reaching this point? The American Water Works Association says that it would cost more than $1 trillion during the next 25 years.

But doing nothing is not an option. The American Society of Civil Engineers says that there are about 240,000 water-main breaks each year in the US. And the American Water Works Association says that the price tag of fixing the country’s aging water infrastructure could rise to more than $2 trillion over the next 25 years if municipalities don’t start taking action now.

“The pipe networks that were largely built and paid for by earlier generations last a long time, but they are not immortal,” says the American Water Works Association in its recent report, Buried No Longer: Confronting America’s Water Infrastructure Challenge. “The nation’s drinking water infrastructure,especially the underground pipes that deliver safe water to America’s homes and businesses, is aging and in need of significant reinvestment.”

The study contained some shocking numbers. But it didn’t say much that engineers and municipal officials didn’t already know.

James Fisher, director of operations and senior project manager with The Merrick Group, Inc. in West Hazleton, PA, says that these water-industry professionals are more often than in the past making the decision to invest in their infrastructure, whether that means replacing pipes or hiring cleaning services on a regular basis to maintain the cleanliness of their pipes or to blast out years of accumulated pollutants and grime.


“Clients definitely appreciate the cleaning services we provide,” says Fisher. “The understanding is there, today, on how important it is to keep their pipes clean. The engineers are concerned with the integrity of their systems. Awareness has really been building over the years. We are seeing a steady increase in the number of pipeline-cleaning requests that we are receiving.”

Fisher has a good baseline from which to judge this increasing demand, too. The Merrick Group has offered high-pressure waterjet cleaning services for more than two decades. The company takes on regular work cleaning the pipes of nuclear power plants and industrial facilities. It is also taking on an increasing number of municipal projects.

“There are many more municipalities, power plants, and commercial owners who are more proactive today than they had been,” says Fisher. “They have been and continue to do preventive maintenance to ensure that they are not going to be forced into a pipe replacement.”

The challenge is that it can remain difficult to convince municipal officials to invest in pipe maintenance when they are facing so many other financial challenges.

Yes, the national economy has improved. But many cities and towns still face tight budgets. They are still leery of spending on any projects that they think might not be absolute necessities.

This can make it challenging for water-plant officials to gain the funding for a pipe-maintenance program, even if they personally are in favor of the idea, Fisher says.

“This can be a tough thing to sell if people don’t understand how important maintenance is,” says Fisher. “But the minimal amount of money you spend on preventive maintenance will pay dividends down the road. A municipality can spend millions upon millions of dollars on replacement pipes, but just a couple hundreds of thousands of dollars on preventive maintenance.”

Mathey says that most municipalities do understand how important it is to invest in their pipes and to pay for regular cleaning services. What prevents these communities from actually paying for maintenance, though, is of little surprise. Many of them simply lack the funding they need to perform industrial pipe cleaning on a regular basis.

“Funding is definitely the key challenge,” says Mathey. “If you don’t have buy-in from your constituents or from your village boards, and money is tight all-around, it’s hard to get the funding you need for this kind of maintenance. It’s hard to spend money on being proactive even if it does bring a great benefit to you. People want their stormwater captured and drained away from their homes. They want their toilets to flush. Everyone wants all of that. But there is that maintenance component that you need.”

Fisher says that it’s clear that engineers appreciate the work that companies like his do. It’s just a matter of convincing municipalities and end-users to come up with the funds needed to pay for cleaning.

“Engineers are turning to the hydrolasing companies and telling us, ‘you are the experts. Here is what we have. What can we do?'” says Fisher. “There are always questions and reservations. Sometimes we have to do a test run. We do everything we can to put them in a comfort zone so that they know what we do for them will only improve the water flow in their pipes.”

Another issue? Some municipalities face several infrastructure challenges in addition to aging pipes. If these same municipalities have limited budgets, they might elect to spend their funds tackling other repair jobs. They might choose something more visible to their residents, such as repairing pothole-filled roadways, over an overhaul of their water pipes, Mathey says.

“It’s a philosophy issue,” says Mathey. “If you believe in the fact that you have to paint the fence that needs it the most, maybe the most important fence isn’t the sewers.”

Municipalities that take a more active approach to maintaining their water pipes, though, generally see a big payoff in the form of reduced repair costs, Mathey says. Towns and cities that hire companies such as Pipe View America can identify possible problems when they are smaller and less costly to repair, he says.

A municipality might, if it hires a company like Pipe View, find five, six, or a dozen potential trouble spots in their water pipes. The municipality can then send out an RFP to handle all of those repairs at once, before they become bigger problems.

“If you handle everything separately, only responding to emergencies, that costs so much more,” says Mathey. “Not to mention, it causes more frustration for residents. If you are proactive, that sinkhole in a resident’s front yard might have been avoided.”

Fisher agrees, saying that municipalities who hire companies such as his to perform regular cleanings of their pipes will see fewer leaks and fewer larger problems such as burst mains and gaping sinkholes.

The problem is, municipalities do often push off proactive preventive maintenance, simply because they are trying to pay for so much with limited dollars.

“If municipalities don’t believe it needs to be done right away, it does get pushed off,” says Fisher. “We think it’s great when we hear about municipalities that are proactive. We don’t want to get to a municipality’s system only to see that it is so degraded by the time we get there that it needs to be replaced. We just want to see some dirt in it, some tuberculation on there that we can clean. That way, the pipe is functioning better, still has its full integrity, and everyone is happy at the end of the day.”

Mathey says that it’s easier for municipalities to spend money on improving their downtown streetscapes or adding new parks. But municipalities that ignore their underground infrastructure, and that don’t take the steps to keep their pipelines clean and free of biofilm and sludge, are simply asking for financial emergencies in the future.

“You can see the money that you put into streets and squares. Those are visual,” says Mathey. “But the whole package is to invest in sewers and underground pipes, too. You want to be able to count on them to work. Communities never rave about having the best sewers. But once sewers fail, it’s all anyone can talk about.”

The companies providing industrial cleaning services to municipalities, power plants, commercial buildings, and other facilities offer a wide range of technology and services. The good news is that this technology is constantly improving, making it easier for municipalities and other end-users to ensure that if they make the investment, service providers will leave them with clean pipes that move water quickly and efficiently.

Carolina Filters (CFI) in Sumter, SC, is a good example. Sue Reynolds, vice president of technology with the company, says that Carolina Filters specializes in cleaning the filters and parts that make up the water distribution systems relied on by large-scale users. The company has never cleaned water pipes for municipalities, but it has cleaned screens for municipal clients.

The company offers oven burnout, steam technology, aqueous chemistries, solvents, and molten salt baths to clean filters and parts. It also relies on physical methods such as flushing, spraying, polishing, and ultrasonics. The company analyzes each job and discusses the options it offers with end-users before deciding which methods are the most appropriate.

“Some pipes that CFI cleans are contaminated with plastics or polymers that are removed in ovens or with solvents, depending on the size and configuration,” says Reynolds. “The metallurgy of these pipes can vary. Some may be 300 Series stainless, but others are forms of carbon steel.”

Reynolds says that other pipes have scales that Carolina Filter removes with wet chemistry or polishing. Pipes must be 300 Series stainless or other exotic alloys, such as nickel, to work with chemical processes.

The Merrick Group offers a wide range of services, too. The company, for instance, relies on manual scrubbing and high-pressure washing for some clients. For others, they might turn to hydrolasing, using a positive displacement pump to deliver an extremely high-pressure stream of water. This method is often appropriate for nuclear power plants as a decontamination method.

Fisher says that pipe-cleaning technology continues to advance. He says, too, that he doesn’t see these advances slowing anytime soon.

“As we know from cell phones, technology is constantly, 100%, advancing,” says Fisher. “The changes in the water industry have not been as great as they have been with cell phones. But over time, the technology changes we have seen in this industry have been just as important as with any other product or industry.”

Two decades ago, for instance, high-pressure water cleaning meant pressures of 10,000 to 20,000 psi. Now, ultra-high-pressure water cleaning offers pressures of up to 40,000 psi.

Companies, such as the Merrick Group, now offer rotary hose devices for pipe cleaning. Traditionally, companies have manually fed nozzles and hoses into pipes. Rotary hoses, though, feature self-controlled heads that crawl into pipes automatically. Once in the pipes, these hoses spin and focus their jets on 360 degrees of pipe wall, Fisher says.

“It spins itself inside the pipe,” says Fisher. “No longer do you have to be concerned that you didn’t get all of the areas of the pipes you are cleaning. This tech is a big jump, but we have not yet seen near the end of what is coming.”

Fisher says that tech advancements have made high-pressure cleaning jobs safer, too. Safe shutdowns and foot-control valves that react quicker make dealing with high-pressure streams of water a safer task for technicians, says Fisher.

“The safety aspect is important,” he says. “When you are dealing with high-pressure water going up to 40,000 psi, you can never turn a blind eye to safety.”

What kind of jobs are pipe-cleaning companies taking on these days?

This summer, the Merrick Group is taking on a large pipe-cleaning project as a subcontractor for Middleboro, MA-based Aqua Solutions. That company has been hired to install liners inside older potable-water pipes that are bringing drinking water to homes in Pennsylvania and New Jersey. The goal is tostrengthen these pipes and prevent any future leaks or breaks.

Aqua Solutions has enlisted the Merrick Group to first clean these pipes.

“You can’t put a liner inside the pipes until you meet certain cleanliness guidelines,” says Merrick. “We are cleaning pipes that were installed in the 1950s. Some of the pipes we have no idea when they were installed. They were put in pre-1900.”

Mathey says that his company will be busy in the coming months, too. Pipe View America works with municipalities, facility managers, and utility companies to inspect, locate, and diagnose problems within their sewer systems and water pipes. The company’s cameras can operate in ductile iron, concrete, HDPE, or any other type of pipe material.

The company’s cameras can record in pipes as small as 2 inches in diameter. Pipe View America can also jet, vacuum, or hydro-excavate pipes before filming if needed.

Mathey says that 25 to 35% of Pipe View America’s jobs come from working with contractors who had been hired by municipalities to clean or repair their pipes. But Pipe View also works directly for municipalities and utilities that hire the company for annual pipe inspections or for emergency work.

Engineers make up the final segment of Pipe View’s customer base, Mathey says. They hire the company to uncover essential data about the health of municipalities’ pipes.

“We locate their assets for them and make sure that everything is safe and secure,” says Mathey.

Pipe View America’s technicians provide clients with key information about their water infrastructure. Mathey says that the company, after finishing its inspections, can tell clients the diameter of their pipes and, most importantly, the condition of them. They can tell clients if they see the warning signs that pipes might need to be replaced.

“Say a municipality is designing a roadway. It makes sense for that municipality to determine if they need to replace their sewer lines at that time,” says Mathey. “You might tear up a roadway once every 20 years. The last thing you want to do is leave a sewer in the ground that will need to be replaced after you finish the roadway work.”

In other jobs, Pipe View America investigates municipal drainage systems that are blocked and not draining properly. Pipe View technicians will use large jet trucks to clear the lines before they then inspect them with their cameras.

Pipe View will then document any issues that they find, so municipalities can make future maintenance, repair, or replacement decisions, Mathey says.

This kind of proactive approach is more important today, Mathey says, because the water infrastructure of so many municipalities is deteriorating.

Some pipes are so old, and have deteriorated so much, that it is difficult for municipalities to even clean them. A high-pressure stream of water might further weaken aging pipes.

“One of the biggest challenges municipalities face is their aging infrastructure,” says Mathey. “The infrastructure is at or beyond its useful lifespan. It could be because of material, capacity, or design. You are starting to see more engineering firms creating bypass plans or rejuvenation plans. Some parts of the country are taking an active role in revamping infrastructure. In other parts of the country, it is tough to get caught up. There is so much aging infrastructure in the ground, it can be tough to get started.”

What Mathey does recommend is that municipalities create a maintenance schedule for their water infrastructure, a plan that lets them schedule pipe investigations and cleanings on a rotating basis. Instead of spending the big money to investigate and clean the majority of their pipes at once, municipalities can instead target smaller sections of their piping each year.

This makes it easier on these communities’ budgets, Mathey says.

“Municipalities can create that rotation based on the dollars they have each year and the type of pipe they have,” says Mathey. “That determines the number of pipes they can get to each year. This way, you are touching all of the water assets in your municipality once every x number of years. That is the single best thing that a municipality can do.” 
About the Author

Dan Rafter

Dan Rafter is a technical writer and frequent contributor.

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