Thomas Gwynn points to one number: 240,000. That’s the estimated number of water main breaks that the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) says hit municipalities each year in the US. Gwynn–president of Krausz USA in Ocala, FL, a company that makes two-bolt couplings and clamps to repair damaged pipes–could also have cited the number $1 trillion. That’s how much the ASCE’s 2013 Report Card for America’s Infrastructure estimates that it would cost to replace all of the damaged pipes that lead to these water main breaks.
For Gwynn, these numbers are proof that much of the drinking water infrastructure in the US–including the piping that accounts for much of it–is nearing the end of its lifespan.
“I will tell you that I have not heard yet how many actual water main breaks we saw in the United States in 2013,” he says. “But I can tell you that the society’s predicted number is not too far off from what actually happened. I find it amazing that in a first-world country like the US there are that many pipe breaks that compromise the flow of potable water to consumers. What is more important than delivering water?”
Gwynn isn’t alone in this opinion. The manufacturers of water pipes and the products used to repair and monitor these pipes agree that utilities and municipalities across the country face a serious infrastructure problem when it comes to water delivery systems. And it’s a problem that’s not getting better. The number of leaks and water main breaks will only continue to rise as pipes continue to age. As the most current Report Card for America’s Infrastructure says, many municipalities are relying on pipes that are 100 years old, or more, to deliver drinking water to their residents and business users.
And the still-sluggish national economy makes this situation even more dire. Many municipalities and water utilities still face slashed budgets. They continue to be ordered to cut costs. In such frugal times, few municipalities are willing to take on the big costs necessary to replace their aging infrastructure. Instead, these municipalities and utilities are relying on “Band-Aid approaches”: repairing breaks and leaks when they happen, and repairing streets and sidewalks when main breaks cause them to collapse.
“When utilities are strapped for cash, instead of taking a proactive position they are forced to become reactive,” says Tony Radoszewski, president of the Plastics Pipe Institute in Irving, TX. “Instead of saying, “˜We have to do the right thing here and replace this pipe,’ they must do stopgap programs and apply Band-Aids. The pipe fails. The street floods or the road collapses. They go in and fix it. They have enough money to do repairs, but they don’t have enough money to do replacements.”
There is good news, though. Municipalities today have several options when it comes to choosing new water pipes to install in their systems–everything from iron to plastic, to concrete. These utilities, too, have more possibilities for monitoring and repairing their systems.
The challenge? Utilities and municipalities have to be willing to spend the upfront money to rejuvenate their aging infrastructures before they suffer even more costly water main breaks and pipe failures.
Radoszewski says that he empathizes with water utility and municipal officials when they discover that their potable water systems are riddled with leaks. “Municipalities are always concerned with not having gas leaks due to the severe consequences of even a small leak. But when it comes to water leaks, there is a lesser sense of urgency to fix it.” This, Radoszewski says, is understandable, but he feels it is the wrong approach to take. Leaking water lines cause several problems, he says.
One problem is that utilities lose money when the drinking water they’ve treated doesn’t reach their end users. Depending on the number and size of the leaks in a utility’s distribution system, these lost costs can prove significant.
“I’ve been told that municipalities lose upwards of 20% of treated water, with some even as high as 40% due to aged infrastructure,” says Radoszewski. “That’s a problem on two fronts. The first, and most obvious, is the loss of treated water, both from a cost and natural resource standpoint. The second has to deal with the significant amount of energy required to operate the pumps that deliver water to homes and businesses. So, not only do utilities see their revenues fall because of lost water, they also see their energy costs rise when they pump water that eventually leaks into the soil without ever reaching customers. In fact, over the lifetime of the pipeline, energy to pump water may be the highest cost to a municipality.”
There are other consequences to failing water lines. According to EPA, there are approximately 240,000 water main breaks per year across the country. “When these water mains break, it’s not just water gushing out of the ground. There is significant damage to the roadways that require massive repair work with a corresponding price tag,” notes Radoszewski.
He tells the story of attending a meeting back in 2008. An official from EPA was discussing the financial challenges preventing municipalities from repairing or replacing their aging underground infrastructure. The official said that in the early 1900s, most municipalities relied on cast-iron pipes for their water distribution systems. These pipes were forecast to have a service life of about 100 years.
After World War I and before World War II, the EPA official said, municipalities began installing water pipes made of ductile iron. This pipe was expected to have a service life of 75 years. After World War II, in the 1950s, municipalities began using a pipe that had an expected 50-year lifespan.
What does all of this mean? “All of these pipes are meeting the ends of their service lives at the same time,” says Radoszewski. “It’s the perfect storm. Everything is coming to a head all at once.”
In a 2002 report by EPA the agency estimated that if spending for capital investment, operations, and maintenance remained at current levels, the potential gap through 2019 would be close to $263 billion for drinking water infrastructure and $270 billion for wastewater infrastructure.
“Municipalities are strapped for cash and it hasn’t gotten any better since 2002,” says Radoszewski. “For a whole host of reasons, they are short on cash. You can read the papers. Pensions plans are under funded. There’s the high cost of labor and the reluctance or inability to raise water rates to pay for replacing water pipes that are well past their intended service life. Whatever the reasons, they are struggling for money. When a product is out-of-sight it’s typically out-of-mind, and the general population is not concerned until something goes wrong. Then you have a big gap in the amount of money you have and the amount of money you need to get your underground infrastructure up to speed.”
Of course, not all municipalities or utilities are reactive when it comes to addressing their infrastructure needs. And those utilities willing to tackle the problems with their water infrastructure can take several steps to monitor their piping to discover leaks and other issues and then repair them before they grow into more costly problems.
Gregg Horn, Vice President of Technical Services for the Birmingham, AL-based Ductile Iron Pipe Research Association (DIPRA), says that utilities must regularly monitor their pipe infrastructure to stay ahead of potential problems. To do this, municipalities must first take a solid inventory of the piping that they have in the ground, listing what kind of pipes they are using and how old they are. The inventory should also list how big the pipes are.
An underground inventory should list how many leaks or other problems different sections of a utility’s infrastructure have suffered over time. By doing this, municipalities and utilities can determine which sections of their underground water infrastructure are most in need of attention.
“Asset management is important,” says Horn. “Condition assessments are important. This helps you prioritize where your infrastructure needs are. You can use this information to help you decide whether you need to rehabilitate a section of pipe or if you need to take the bigger step of replacing it.”
Taking this inventory is often easier said than done, though, he says. It can be time consuming, and existing records are often incomplete. But, utilities today can turn to software that allows them to digitize their pipe networks, making the records easier to keep and analyze. This software can help them list the size, age, and type of any pipes that make up their water infrastructure, and more.
“You get that inventory and put it on a map to see where your break records or customer complaints are coming from,” he says. “When you plot those out, you’ll get a good idea of which part of your utility area has more problems than others. You can then focus on those areas. If you have a pipeline that is giving you problems, focus on that section. That type of analysis can be very useful.”
They can also add to their database by collecting more information as they perform routine maintenance or operational activities, he says. There are emerging technologies that might help identify problems before they result in breaks, although the practical uses of such systems are limited.
“Most of the technology out there is useful in finding problems that already exist,” says Horn. “And they can be expensive. Technologies such as cameras and acoustic equipment are more practical in large-diameter transmission mains than they are in smaller distribution systems.”
Radoszewski says that more progressive cities are already relying on closed-circuit TVs to identify weaknesses in their water pipe infrastructure. These municipalities run a cart down their pipes. The cart has a television fiber optic embedded in it that broadcasts video of the pipes’ insides. Utility or municipal officials can then study the level of corrosion that exists in these pipes. They can also search for signs of damaged pipes.
Officials can use this closed-circuit TV to determine, too, whether the joints connecting underground pipes are healthy, or if they, too, are leaking. Maury Gaston, marketing manager with AMERICAN, a provider of iron pipe in Birmingham, AL, says that leaks remain a serious problem for municipalities, with some losing as much as 15% to 20% of their treated drinking water to leaks every year.
There might come a time, Gaston says, when regulatory groups mandate that utilities can’t lose more than 5% or so of their potable water to leaks. If such regulations do go into effect, this could force some utilities to take more action to identify and repair leaks. “People are starting to pay more attention to their water loss,” he says. “They understand that water loss equals a loss in revenue.”
Municipalities and utilities shouldn’t be surprised that their pipes are leaking, especially if those pipes are old. Underground water pipes face plenty of stressors that can easily cause leaks and other damage.
“Water pipes are underground,” says Gaston. “Traffic drives over that ground. The ground freezes and thaws. It expands and contracts. That all puts pressure on the pipes. Water pressures within the pipe systems create what we call a surge or water hammer, a sudden increase in pressure inside a pipe. And, that all wears on a pipe.”
The Big Question
As pipes age, municipal and utility officials face a classic question: do they need to repair or replace their underground pipes?
Gwynn, from Krausz USA, says that municipalities must look at several factors when answering this question. “That’s the classic evaluation,” he says. “When am I going to fix it? When am I going to replace it? Replacing pipe comes with a long list of logistical problems that you don’t have when you are repairing the pipe. But you can only fix a pipe so many times before you have to replace it. We want to make it as easy as possible for municipalities to fix these problems when they do decide to go the repair route instead of the replacing route.”
Not all municipalities are taking the fix-it route. Radoszewski says municipalities that boast healthy finances are spending the money it takes to not only study their water pipe infrastructure, but to replace their old pipes when needed. He points to Palo Alto, CA, a relatively wealthy community. In 2009, this municipality embarked on a costly pipe-replacement project. The city began by replacing 6 miles of aging cast-iron water main pipe that was reaching the end of its useful life.
The city decided to make polyethylene plastic pipe its permanent replacement-pipe type, to install it whenever cast-iron pipe needed to be dug up and replaced. It’s now in the middle of a 10-year project to replace all old water pipes with polyethylene.
Palo Alto city officials didn’t make this move lightly. The city decided to go with polyethylene after seeing the success its gas utility has had with this type of pipe, adds Radoszewski. The gas utility began using it in the mid 1980s.
“There are some municipalities that are more fortunate. They are in a better financial situation and can be proactive when it comes to their potable water infrastructure. They have the resources to do the right thing.”
Making the Decision
Every individual water utility must decide for itself whether to repair or replace aging water pipes. But this decision doesn’t end the planning process for water utilities. Officials must also decide, if they go with replacement, what types of pipes to install once they remove the aging infrastructure.
And this is not a decision to be made lightly. Utility and municipal officials must focus on everything from strength and installation costs to projected life spans and yearly maintenance costs before deciding on a specific type of water pipe.
Gaston says municipalities must first consider a pipe’s strength. And he–a proponent of iron pipe–says iron pipes are the strongest type of water pipe available to municipalities. Despite the many water main breaks each year and the large amount of water that municipalities lose to leaks on an annual basis, the country’s underground infrastructure of water pipes–composed largely of iron pipes–is in relatively strong condition. And that’s especially true if you compare underground water pipes to the nation’s highways, bridges, and railways, he says.
“The aboveground transportation structure is in far worse shape than the nation’s underground iron pipe drinking water infrastructure,” adds Gaston. “You have corroding bridges. You have potholes in the roads. The aboveground transportation infrastructure is in far worse condition than 100-year-old buried cast-iron pipe. And it’s a lot easier to pave a street, than it is to install underground water pipe. Thank goodness cast-iron pipes were around 100 years ago when these were built.”
Horn from DIPRA says iron pipe boasts a conservative design that accounts for much of its durability. This type of pipe is designed to handle far more pressure or external force than most underground pipes will ever face. “There is not another pipe out there that has a design that is as conservative as ductile iron pipe,” he says.
Because of this, iron pipe tends to last long. Horn says that properly designed and installed iron pipe can have an average minimum shelf service life of 100 years without suffering serious problems. “When you think about it, the iron pipe that has lasted 100 years was done using 100-year-old engineering, metallurgy, and manufacturing. It served that long, despite all of the things we did not know then. Now our knowledge and abilities have improved, and we can use that knowledge to design for such long service lives,” he says.
The insides of iron pipe are also larger than the insides of identically sized plastic pipes. As an example, Gaston says, the inside of a 12-inch-diameter iron pipe is bigger than the inside of a 12-inch-diameter plastic pipe. That’s because iron pipe is stronger than plastic. To overcome this, plastic pipe needs thicker walls that cut down on the size of these pipes’ insides. This plays a role when water is pumped through these pipes, he adds. It requires less energy to push water through iron pipes because of these larger insides. That reduces the life-cycle costs of iron pipe.
Of course, critics of iron pipe say that this type of pipe has one major weakness: corrosion. But Horn and other proponents of iron pipes say that corrosion is a problem of the past, and that iron pipes designed properly keep corrosion at bay.
Gaston says that most soils in the US will not corrode iron pipe. But, even in the rare cases where a particular soil type is corrosive, utilities can still rely on iron pipe. They simply have to wrap the pipe with polyethylene. This way these utilities get the benefit of iron’s strength without having to worry about corrosion over the long run.
“We have done hundreds of dig-ups of iron pipe wrapped in polyethelyne encasement in corrosive soils,” he says. “Those pipes are in beautiful condition.”
Plastic pipes have their advantages, too, say the proponents of this material. Radoszewski says a big one is price: Plastic pipes are less expensive than are their iron peers. Secondly, municipalities never have to worry about corrosion when they are relying on plastic, he says.
At the same time, today’s plastic pipes are strong and are resistant to leaks, says Radoszewski. He adds that a growing number of utilities are choosing plastic pipe today, either in its polyethylene or PVC varieties. “If you look at the new installations of pipes today, plastic pipe dominates the potable water and sewer market.”
According to him, over 70% of new potable water pipe installations today are plastic, with the remainder being ductile iron. The number climbs to nearly 85% for sewer systems.
Radoszewski predicts that the market share of polyethylene water pipe will steadily increase as more municipalities become familiar with the material. And this is something that could happen at an expedited pace if more gas and water utilities merge into single entities. Polyethylene pipe has long been a mainstay of gas utilities, due to its leak-free joints and durability, he says.“If the manager with the now-combined division comes from the gas side, that manager will probably be familiar with polyethylene,” he states. “They might ask, “˜Why aren’t we using it for our water, too?'”