A tale of two cities without water

4 “main” reasons why water mains break:

Starting on December 18th, the city of Jersey City experienced a series of water main breaks that left thousands without water service during the busy holiday season.  United Water crews responded quickly and worked day and night to safely restore essential water service. Many were still advised to boil their water before using it for several days – as a precautionary measure.

Fast forward a few days and drive south on I-95 and another major U.S. City – Philadelphia – experienced a disruptive burst that similarly closed schools and hospitals and disrupted traffic.  Both cities lost gallons of treated water to the broken pipes:  1 million gallons in Jersey City and 23 million gallons in Philadelphia.

Enter a quick google search and during the same time period – during the cold days leading up to Christmas – other American cities altered their routines due to broken water pipes:  Albuquerque, Amarillo and Madison, to name a few.

So why do water mains break and what can be done preventatively?

A few reasons why pipes break:

1- Temperature, temperature, temperature:

  • Slight changes in air or water temperature can dramatically increase stress on a pipe.
  • Cold temperatures cause pipes to become brittle.
  • As the ground freezes, pipes may succumb to external stress.
  • Water temperature lags behind air temperature changes and therefore main breaks are common one-to-two days after a cold spell.

2- Proximity to construction work:

  • If you lift the lid on busy cities, you’ll find an underground network of pipes and wires that is commensurate with the traffic above ground.  Despite appropriate precautions, contractors that are fixing one network can inadvertently nick another one – causing a water main break.

 3- Age:

  • The break rate for pipes increases over time.1897 photo
  • Did you know that many water pipes lain in the late 1800s to early 1900s still operate under our cities?

 4- Material

  • Particularly cast iron pipes that were put in the ground in the 1970s and earlier, become brittle over time and are more susceptible to breaks.

What can be done to prevent water main breaks?

1- Investment

  • Proactive investment is certainly needed to repair the sometimes 100-year old water pipes that line most east coast cities.
  • According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, $354 billion over the next 20 years will need to be invested, nationwide, to revitalize and maintain our nation’s water infrastructure.

What we’re doing to prevent water main breaks

United Water is preparing to invest $1 billion in infrastructure over the next five years. While we recognize that this level of investment may be inconvenient to customers in water shut-offs and traffic disruptions; it’s the nature of doing work underground.  Additionally, infrastructure investment can lead to rate increases for customers.

Many cities have traditionally chosen to defer the proactive investment and resulting rate increases in favor of a more reactive or “band aid” approach to dealing with infrastructure when it breaks.  However, as infrastructure ages and breaks become more commonplace, many cities are preparing to reinvest in their essential water infrastructure. Through its SOLUTION program, United Water is willing and able to provide money and expertise for these investments in cities that choose to tackle their infrastructure challenges.

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