As We Rebuild Our Nation’s Infrastructure, It’s Time to Upgrade to Plastic Water Pipes

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As we set about rebuilding the resilience of our nation’s infrastructure, we need to focus attention and resources on our crumbling water delivery systems.

If you want an eye-opening (and rather gross) illustration of the problems with our nation’s water networks, check out WatermainBreakClock.com. The site tracks the number and costs of water main breaks in North America.

Here are some sobering stats, according to the site (as of early January 2022):

  • Number of daily water main breaks: 850
  • Number of water main breaks since 2000: 6,835,000+
  • Annual costs of corroded pipes (using a baseline from a 2002 Congressional study): $50+ billion
  • Corrosion costs since 2000: $888,750,000,000 (that’s 888+ billion dollars!)

These hundreds of daily water main breaks in the United States result in expensive repairs that can tie up entire neighborhoods and clog traffic for weeks or months (yes, it feels longer).

Sadly, more than a quarter of water transferred never makes it to the customer, a huge waste of energy and resources. While not all of this water loss is due to faulty water transmission, aging pipes contribute significantly. Decades-old rusted and corroded lead, cast iron, steel, and cement pipes remain widespread, and replacing them is a hugely expensive and disruptive affair.

If you can stomach it, this site has some images of corroded drinking water pipes after years of use, including some from Flint, MI. These images are graphic displays of “tuberculation,” internal corrosion and bio-film contamination in iron pipes. Yuck.

The question we should ask is: replace them with what? With those same old-technology materials that are corroding? Or with new advanced materials such as durable, modern plastic pipes?

Plastic pipes are replacing traditional materials in many applications. In fact, millions of miles of plastic pipe are in service throughout North America, relied upon by thousands of water utilities.

When rebuilding our nation’s infrastructure, why choose modern plastic pipes over old-technology pipes? Lots of reasons:

  • Innovative engineering now allows plastic pipes to replace the old, rusted pipes without removing them or even without digging trenches, which can dramatically reduce the cost and disruption of repairing and upgrading our water moving infrastructure. (See side article on Arlington National Cemetery.)
  • Benefiting from their inherent flexibility and impact resistance, plastic pipes are well suited to areas prone to earthquakes or floods, which makes these communities more resilient.
  • The plastic pipe systems are designed to resist rust and corrosion and provide many years of reliable service (some in excess of 100 years), requiring less frequent replacement.
  • Communities often can install plastic pipes more economically than traditional systems.
  • Plastic pipes have smooth surfaces, which requires less energy to pump water through them.
  • Lighter weight tends to make it easier and less costly to handle, transport, and install plastic pipes.
  • Plastic pipes can help save money over the life cycle of a pipe network because increasing amounts of energy are required to operate old-technology piping systems as they corrode.
  • Plastic piping can be recyclable – however, since it is so durable, most of it has yet to enter the recycling stream.
  • Plastic pipes have a significantly lower failure rate compared to iron, steel, and cement alternatives, according to a study by Utah State University.

So… more economical, more durable, less energy use, and better performance that improves the resiliency of our communities.

If we’re going to spend hundreds of billions of dollars upgrading our nation’s water moving systems, shouldn’t we also upgrade our materials so we can build more resilient communities and a more durable national infrastructure?

Want to learn more? Check out a really cool pipe replacement project at our nation’s Arlington National Cemetery

The two primary types of plastic pipes have somewhat different properties – civil engineers typically are best prepared to choose the right one for the job.

  • Engineering News-Record, a publication for construction industry professionals, in 1999 recognized PVC plastic water and sewer pipe as one of the top 20 engineering advancements of the last 125 years.
  • Washington, DC, installed 402 feet of HDPE plastic pipe on busy 16th Street… overnight. Contractors inserted a 30-inch diameter plastic pipe inside a failed 36-inch metal pipe. And morning commuters were not disrupted.