Why do we do that? Water Main Break Edition

A water main break in the City, January 2019.

I am going to preface this post by telling you it’s really long. But I think, especially in light of how often water infrastructure is in the news and in the light of our own boil water issue this summer, this is interesting and important information. I’ll also tell you that this really is just the beginning of it. Please (please) contact me if you want to discuss this more or have specific questions.

Breaks – Why do they happen?

Every water system has water main breaks. The frequency of the breaks typically depends on a number of factors including everything from weather, to age of the pipe, the type of pipe and even the soil in which the pipe is buried. Sometimes, though, there is not a lot of rhyme or reason to the break. Breaks are more likely to occur on older pipe, in corrosive soils and in weather where there are big swings in temperature or extreme cold. Breaks will continue to happen until the City’s infrastructure is new. Sometimes there will be a break on a section of main every other year for five years and then nothing will happen for ten years. About 30% of the City’s system was installed prior to the 1970s. That infrastructure is at or past its expected life cycle. It’s important to note though that age of pipe is not the only factor when it comes to how the City best spends its limited money – but more about that later – first what happens with a break.

What happens when a break occurs?

Breaks are typically reported by residents. During normal business hours most people call the City office but after hours and on weekends, residents should call 911. Staff from the Department of Public Works will respond to verify the break. Sometimes, our water department will notice the potential for a break because our monitoring equipment will see a spike in water use. Once we verify that there is a break, we have to notify all the utilities and provide up to three hours for utilities (MISS DIG) to respond and identify any infrastructure that they may have in the area (Charter, Gas, Electric, etc.). A typical water main repair takes somewhere between four and six hours to repair. Some repairs involve using a clamp and other repairs may necessitate cutting out a section of main and replacing it. The water main repair is typically performed while the main is under low pressure. Repairing the main this way helps ensure that the water within the main remains safe.  After repairs are completed the water main is brought to full system line pressure and thoroughly flushed out of fire hydrants. Even when the main is repaired, there is still clean up work that may need to performed weeks or months later including restoring lawn areas and patching pavement.

What’s an acceptable number of breaks for a community to have?

It’s hard to say what is an acceptable rate of water main breaks. I think the answer that we would love to give would be “none.” National studies estimate the overall failure rate of public water supply systems is between 20 to 30 failures (breaks) per 100 miles.

For the City of Frankenmuth, we have 42.48 miles of water main.  Our easily accessible records for water main breaks dates back to 1994. The City has had a total of 160 breaks since 1994. That is a lot in terms of the sheer volume – but it’s 6.6 per year. And we’ve been steadily combating the breaks. Ken O’Brien, our Water Superintendent, has created and managed a Geographic Information System and populated it with more data than you think we would have. For 2017 we had 13 breaks, in 2018 we had 8.   

Planning for Replacement

Each year, in advance of the budget (which is adopted in July) the City develops a prioritized Capital Improvement Plan. Every department has a method for prioritizing their projects and determining need over want. In the water department, there is a scoring system that includes the age of the main, the material, the size of the main, whether it is commercial or residential, the number of breaks. Some of the City’s water main installed in the 1930s and 40s have a better performance record and are more reliable than that installed in the 1950s.  Each year the scoring is updated with new information and different areas move up the list. The City then attempts to coordinate any other work that may be needed. For example, in this year’s draft Capital Improvement Plan Mueller Court, which has had a number of breaks over the past few years, was identified as one of the top priorities. In the Public Works Department, resurfacing of Mueller Court, while not at the very top of the list, is identified as a need. When we put together the capital budget for City Council in April, staff will most likely recommend that the water main is replaced and the road resurfaced as one complete project. Coordination not only makes sense but can help reduce costs.

Page one of four of the most recent Water Main Assessment. If you’d like to see it in person or the City’s complete Water Asset Management Plan, just stop by.

So there you have it – a very lengthy explanation about water main breaks and how we are planning on reducing the number of breaks per year. There will continue to be breaks. Some years we may have more than 6.6. But know that there is a plan, it’s based on fact and constrained by costs. If you have questions, please let us know. We really do like to talk about this sort of stuff.

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