Race to Replace

Proactive water main replacement program in Pennsylvania limits breaks from winter weather

Communities across the country faced extreme cold and above-average precipitation this winter, and the weather took its toll on water infrastructure. WWD Editorial Assistant Chelsea Corbin recently spoke with Steve Tagert, president of Aqua Pennsylvania, about the pressures placed on water mains and how his utility overcame them. 

Chelsea Corbin: What conditions are particularly stressful for water mains? 

Steve Tagert: The cold water temperature and the quick change in temperature are particularly stressful. When the water changes temperature 5° or 10° very quickly, it creates added stress on the pipe. The frost in the earth puts pressure on the pipe as well. As frost drives deeper into the ground—and this year we are seeing frost levels in northeast Pennsylvania 4 ft deep—it can freeze some shallower lines. Also, that frost is very heavy and puts added stress onto the pipe.

Corbin: What can utilities do to prevent water main breaks?

Tagert: The best thing to do is to be proactive in your main replacement program. Utilities were not replacing pipe for years and years, and they have kind of caught up to it. 

Right now we are replacing about 2% of our system a year, about 140 miles of pipe—a pretty aggressive program. But when you think about it, if you replace 1% of your pipe a year, in 100 years you will have replaced all the pipe, but the pipe you started with is 100 years old already. 

We have had 300 main breaks in southeast Pennsylvania between Jan. 1 and March 1. Had we not done such an aggressive program over the past 10 or 15 years, we probably would have had 600 or more breaks for that short period of time. 

Corbin: How do you structure your main repair program?

Tagert: We have data that go back to the 1950s and ’60s for all of our main breaks in a GIS program. Every year as we start our budgets and start looking at our plans for main replacements, we take a number of things into consideration: We look at the main breaks and the frequency of the breaks, the damage that the main breaks cause, and the customers who are affected. We also look at undersized pipe and increasing fire flow in the community. We look at water quality issues. One of the biggest things we look at is highway reconstruction and highway paving by either the municipality or the state; if they are going to repave a highway, we want to get in there ahead of that repaving and replace our water mains. We can save a little bit of money, and then we do not have to go in and tear up a new road to replace a break that occurs just after the last steamroller leaves the job. 

We also try to work with the other utilities, particularly the local gas companies or sewer authorities, and try to cooperate with the replacements they are making. If they are replacing pipe and we think we need to replace pipe there, too, we try to do it at once. That affects the customers all at once—then the road is done and everyone is happy when we all leave and they do not see us again for a long time after that. 

Corbin: Do you have any recommendations based on your experience with water main replacement? 

Tagert: A recommendation that works well for us is to be very open with the customers. When we do a project, every customer gets a letter explaining what they will see take place. They will see what the dollar value of the project is and they also will get a schedule. The customers understand that it’s about a two-month project, off and on at different times. They understand that the paving in the beginning is a temporary paving and we’re coming back and replacing that. The townships all get a letter. In Pennsylvania, we give each state representative and local legislative person a letter describing the project, too, so if they get questions about the project from their constituents, they know what it’s all about. Being proactive and making our customers aware of it certainly helps them understand.

Steve Tagert is president of Aqua Pennsylvania. Tagert can be reached at setagert@aquaamerica.com.

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