Americans use a lot of water.
According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the average family uses north of 300 gallons of water at home each day, most attributed to indoor uses. When you add in all the water used for irrigation, cooling down power-producing equipment, and other applications, combined with what’s lost to leaks, those gallons quickly add up. The United States Geological Survey estimates Americans use around 322 billion gallons of water every day.
Travel across the U.S., and one thing becomes clear; there isn’t much unity in how cities and states handle their water infrastructures. Nearly 9 out of 10 Americans rely on public water supplies for their daily needs, but the infrastructure delivering the water many people use to shower, drink, or wash clothes with is starting to reach, or surpass, its usable lifespan.
There is a massive gap in the average age of water systems in different cities.
Philadelphia is one of the oldest cities in the United States. It’s also home to water lines that are well over a century old – some may have been in use since the Civil War. Cities across the Southwest have much younger infrastructures, but their pipes are still several decades old.
Residential water lines will last for about 40 years before requiring replacement. However, the average age of water mains in the U.S. is about 45 years, with many more stretching far beyond that. Other factors can impact the lifespan of a water main, including soil composition, density, and other factors like pipe construction and material.
Cast iron pipes, used during the late 1800s alongside materials like concrete and wood, last about 120 years. As new manufacturing methods and materials hit the market through the 1920s, lifespans decreased. Pipes installed during the 1920s will last about 100 years. System lines installed in the 1950s can last about 75 years.
In many cases, pipes installed decades ago are ready to be replaced. Others have cruised well past their expiration dates and could be developing leaks that waste money and water. For cash-strapped communities, replacing water lines is expensive and time-consuming, leaving them performing replacement jobs as water main breaks occur.
It’s a fact of life – the older things are, the more likely they break down.
There are roughly 1.2 million miles of water distribution pipes delivering clean water to Americans, but there are plenty of leaks, too. In 2018 alone, more than 300,000 water main breaks were reported across the U.S., leaking millions of gallons of water that has been treated but will never be paid for by customers.
Water loss isn’t solely tied to water main breaks, either. McKinsey & Company believes somewhere between 14-18% of potable water is lost due to leaks. As communities focus on water conservation and protection, it’s still alarming to see an estimated 6 billion gallons of water leak out of the system each day.
Water main breaks aren’t the only problem communities face, either. Disruptions come in all shapes and sizes, and sometimes water leaks can occur without warning. Paying to treat water can be expensive, but if it isn’t getting to paying customers, the lost revenue can create a compounding effect. As a result of missing out on more money, municipalities have to raise rates, resulting in higher costs overall.
In the case of a large-scale water main break, millions of gallons can be lost in a few hours, causing damage to personal property, including cars, homes, and lawns. Additionally, homeowner’s insurance may not cover damages caused by a water main break, leaving homeowners footing the bill to cover damages.
The United States has some of the safest water supplies on Earth, so the threat of waterborne diseases developing from water infrastructure is rare – but never zero. Contaminants can seep into water lines through cracks along the pipe, raising the possibility of people getting sick.
Contaminants can also seep into water from lead pipes used to transport water. Lead is found naturally in soil, water, and air, but there is no safe amount of exposure to the metal. It’s also linked to several developmental issues in children.
Lead can build up in our bodies over the years. Eventually, it can lead to brain damage, infertility, liver and kidney issues, and complications for pregnant women and unborn babies.
As the average age of our water lines increases, so does the cost to replace them.
It will likely cost billions of dollars to complete all the infrastructure projects, but the United States government has set aside additional money as part of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. As part of the more than $1 trillion in funding is $55 billion in funding designed to help cover investments in water infrastructure.
How does the infrastructure bill break those funds down? According to McKinsey & Company, there are several buckets of funds available:
These programs address several concerns, including lead pipe removal, reducing Poly- and perfluoroalkyl substances (PFAS), discovering future contaminants, investing in new water sourcing programs, improving technology, and providing more support for smaller municipal water systems.
There is a high price tag associated with upgrading our water infrastructure, but the benefits outweigh the costs. Municipalities will likely experience less lost water due to leaks and breaks, safer drinking water, and more revenue.
Replacing old water pipes sometimes means tearing up the ground, which can cause problems for neighborhoods. However, crews can replace or upgrade pipes without causing damage and disturbing communities.
Pipe bursting involves using boring tools pulled by a cable and winch to break the old pipe along its length. New pipe can also be pulled through behind the tool, allowing workers to either swap the old line out for a new one that’s the same size or even upsize if the conditions allow. The process also requires less digging and doesn’t cause as much disruption as an open-cut method or replacement.
When deciding whether to use a pipe bursting method to replace an old pipe with a new line, determine the run length, soil conditions, and space needed to complete the job. Bursting works for shorter runs up to 750 feet, though it could also work for straight-line runs extending more than 1,000 feet.
Pipe bursting may not work well in compacted soil or areas beneath the water table or if the line is near other underground utilities. Open-cut applications would be more appropriate in those situations.
Replacing our nation’s water systems will take years and billions of dollars. With that said, starting now is our best bet to protect ourselves from paying even more later.
Addressing the issue has become a focal point for municipalities across the country as they work to upgrade systems, maintain water quality, and maintain a steady stream of revenue. Beyond that, these projects work to solve several issues at once. New lines allow us to continue addressing lead in the water, increase savings by reducing the number of leaks and breaks experienced each year and reduce the money needed to source, treat, and pump water to customers.
There is no quick-fix solution to addressing our water system issues, but it’s possible to shore up the water sector and continue providing the safe and accessible water we’ve come to enjoy.