Jan 10, 2018

Pipe Perspective

Six things as old as the pipe delivering your water to your customers

Lars Stenstedt writes on six things likely older than drinking water pipes

Water industry leaders have tried to convey the urgency to address the country’s failing water infrastructure. Yet, the industry receives minimal attention from policymakers. I would like to try a new approach, one that casts a new light on the issue via historical reference points, which I hope will demonstrate the urgency of the matter.

Most parts of the world have had some form of potable water infrastructure since the 16th and 17th centuries, but the first modern water systems in the U.S. showed up during the 19th century. Amazingly, some of the pipelines delivering clean drinking water today in America are 150 to 200 years old. Most modern water pipes are made from ductile iron, plastic or steel, but many of the oldest are made of cast iron. More than 500 North American cities are served by cast iron water mains that were installed 100 years ago, while at least 12 cities have cast iron pipes more than 150 years old.

There is no debate that cast iron and other pipe materials are durable and reliable. However, water pipes have a finite life span. Estimates show that 240,000 water main breaks occur each year in the U.S., and projections indicate this increasing dramatically in the next 20 to 30 years as cast iron and other pipes hit their age limits.

To paint a better picture of the age of our drinking water infrastructure, below is a list of figures, events and inventions that took place during the time period that much of today’s water infrastructure was introduced.

1. The Telegraph (1837)

The telegraph was invented by Samuel Morse in 1837, the same time period that some of our first water pipes were laid underground in the U.S. Gone are the days of sending messages via electrical telegraph signals, but still present today are some of our earliest drinking water pipes.

2. Completion of the Transcontinental Railroad (1869)

Some of the oldest water pipes in Washington, D.C., and along the east coast were put in the ground just before the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869. In other words, our water pipes were put in use during a time when the only way to cross the country was by horseback or stage coach. This also means some of us get our tap water from the same channels as our predecessors who drafted and signed the Pacific Railroad Act of 1862.

3. The Commercial Light Bulb (1879)

Thomas Edison patented the first commercial lightbulb in 1879 to bring light to the masses. Around the same time, utilities were kicking into high gear to install new cast iron water pipes and make clean drinking water accessible to the growing U.S. population. Flash forward 137 years, and numerous iterations of the commercial lightbulb have taken form.

4. The Statue of Liberty (1885)

The Statue of Liberty arrived at Ellis Island, N.Y., in 1885 aboard the French frigate Isere. Similar to today’s IKEA furniture, our country’s freedom icon came in 350 pieces and was packed into 214 crates. Pan over to other parts of the country, thousands of miles of cast iron pipe segments were still being installed beneath the surface. These pipes are pushing the age limit. Without pipeline upkeep and maintenance, we jeopardize access to clean water.

5. Labor Laws and Rights (late 1800s to early 1900s)

Worker-employee disputes were commonplace from the 17th to 19th centuries, but it was not until the end of the 19th century and turn of the 20th that relations really got shaky between the two parties. The period was characterized by a surge of trade union formation and worker strikes, as well as a new set of water pipelines across the country.

We get an eight-hour work day and child labor is not abused any longer, but we are still getting water from pipes as old as our great grandparents.

6. Women’s Suffrage (1920)

Depending on where you live in the U.S., some of the pipes bringing water to your home were around before women were granted the right to vote in 1920. The battle for women’s suffrage, courtesy of activists Susan B. Anthony, Alice Paul and others throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, was paralleled by the increase of modern day drinking fountains across the nation. Just a few years before, people thought sharing public drinking cups at vertical water fountains was sanitary.

These are just a handful of monumental events, figureheads and inventions that took place in tandem with the development of modern water infrastructure in the U.S. In the same way that our country’s previous ideals and way of life are considered outdated today, the infrastructure we built during those same years are similarly in need of a makeover.

U.S. history serves as a great reference point for understanding the state of the country’s infrastructure. It is time we start paying attention to what our pipes have been telling us over the years via frequent pipe breaks and leaks and start taking intelligent action to move up water pipe replacement on our political agenda. 

About the author

Lars Stenstedt is co-founder and COO of Fracta. Stenstedt can be reached at [email protected] or 510.299.2151

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