Study: Water main breaks up 27% across United States

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Although we’ve seen a few water main breaks this winter, overall, we’ve been lucky — especially when compared with other places around the country. A study by Utah State University’s Buried Structures Laboratory (yes, there’s a lab dedicated to buried structures!) found that break rates in the U.S. and Canada “have increased 27% in the past six years.”

The study is one of the largest conducted on water main breaks to date, and according to an article from WaterOnline, it “can assist in revising pipe service life assumptions used in the past.”

“This report provides greater insight into the drivers of the aging water infrastructure crisis and offers data which utilities can use to benchmark pipe material performance. It will be a valuable asset management planning tool for water utilities,” said Dr. Steven Folkman, a university professor who led the study. The state of the nation’s water and wastewater lines is the focus of the Water Infrastructure Finance and Innovation Act, or WIFIA, which officially kicked off last August when 12 projects were selected to apply for the first loans.

The study warns that break rates for certain pipes could increase exponentially over time. “Utilities across the country would need to rapidly accelerate their pipe replacement schedules to avoid potentially serious economic and social impacts,” Folkman said.

Thankfully, LCA crews have been working diligently to replace pipes in our service areas. According to CEO Liesel Gross, “LCA has some water mains that are 50 to 100 years old or older, and we replace 4-plus miles per year at a price tag of approximately $7 million. With 600-plus miles of water lines throughout the service area, preventive maintenance is an ongoing effort. We strategically plan replacement projects, but are also prepared to react quickly to main breaks when they occur.”

Our neighbors in Philadelphia are in a similar situation. The Philadelphia Water Department has said the average age of its 3,200 miles of water lines is about 78 years; with some pipes dating back to 1824. The average age of their wastewater lines is about 100 years. Crews once found an unused, wooden water main that was 205 years old.

According to the Water Online story, the study also found that:

  • Nationwide, one mile of installed water main serves 308 people;
  • 85% of water pipes are less than 12 inches in diameter;
  • The percentage of water mains over 50 years old has increased from 22% to 28% in the past six years;
  • Since 2012 the percentage of installed water mains which are beyond their useful lives has doubled from 8% to 16%;
  • Cast iron (CI) pipes represent the largest pipe material inventory and 82% of all CI pipes are over 50 years old;
  • Average daily gallons used per day per person is 137, which suggests successful water conservation efforts across the country.

You can view the full report here.