Rochester Is Leading the Water Curve

New York utility builds system efficiency by constantly working toward the future

Rochester Is Leading the Water Curve

Technician Kevin Matzan listens for leaks in a waterline after a recent repair job.

"We take every opportunity to reduce our carbon footprint, by adopting the most effective best practices out there in the industry.”

That’s Norman Jones, Environmental Services commissioner, describing the mission of the Rochester, New York, Bureau of Water, which serves 210,000 people through 58,000 accounts in this city on the shores of Lake Ontario.

He backs up this statement by ticking off a number of forward-looking initiatives:

  • Electric vehicles
  • An entirely gravity-fed water transmission and distribution system
  • Low volume of nonrevenue water
  • LEED Gold building for the water operations center
  • Consideration of solar panels on the water treatment plant.

“Even though our system was designed to serve customers over 140 years ago, it continues to operate efficiently and sustainably today,” he says.

Some of this results from the natural configuration of the landscape; source water from Hemlock Lake flows by gravity to and through the city’s transmission and distribution lines — about 675 miles in all.

At the same time, staff diligence and dedication have led to other efficiencies, especially leak detection and control. “We are now averaging about 10 breaks per 100 miles of water main,” Jones says. “That’s well below the industry standard for optimized systems.”


The clean, clear source water comes from Canadice and Hemlock lakes in a protected upland forest area. It is treated at Rochester’s water filtration plant, located on the shore of Hemlock Lake, about 30 miles southeast of the city. The plant is rated at 48 mgd and averages about 37 mgd. Water is treated with conventional flocculation, sedimentation, filtration and disinfection before being fed to the transmission lines that take it to three storage reservoirs near the city. Reservoir storage capacity is approximately 250 million gallons.

From there, the water is disinfected again, then flows through the distribution mains to customers. Some of the piping dates back to the 1870s and is largely cast iron or ductile iron. Rochester has been rehabilitating water mains by cement-lining them since the mid-1940s as a way to protect and preserve the older pipes.

“All of the transmission lines from the filtration plant to the reservoirs are cement-lined to prevent internal corrosion,” says Patrick O’Connor, Bureau of Water director. “We’re lining the distribution system at a rate of 5 to 6 miles every year, focusing on the older cast iron pipes.”

The city also has 7,500 fire hydrants. In a unique arrangement, the Fire Department annually inspects all hydrants, while the Bureau of Water makes required repairs. In the downtown central business district, there is a separate, high-pressure fire protection system called the Holly system, named for the original 1870s pump manufacturer.

“It’s a unique system that now uses modern, energy-efficient, electric and diesel-powered pumps, with approximately 20 miles of 6- to 20-inch-diameter water mains consisting primarily of cast iron pipe,” O’Connor says. “We are one of only two or three cities in North America to use this type of system.”

Best practices

Rochester prides itself on a wide range of initiatives in recent years to improve the cost-effectiveness and reliability of its water system.

“We were an early adopter of geographic information systems,” Jones points out. He says the utility developed an in-house system to identify and monitor assets back in the 1990s and then was one of the first water providers in the region to use an Esri system in the early 2000s.

“It’s a big benefit for us,” Jones says. “We can track the history of main breaks back to the 1980s. Using GIS, we can analyze the situation, prioritize system improvements, and identify hydraulic needs and which mains need to be addressed first. It is also used to develop and update the hydraulic model of our water system.”

While the Rochester water system is fully metered, the utility is engaged in a multiyear program to transition from manual to radio-read readers. “We are about 65% complete,” O’Connor says. Before, readers used touchpads but had to walk the routes. Radio-read meters (Neptune Technology Group) are being installed on a route-by-route basis and when service calls are made. O’Connor says reading now takes fewer people and a fraction of the time it used to take to walk a route.

Rochester is also piloting an advanced metering infrastructure project that allows the utility to not only read meters, but also collect detailed customer-use and leak data via a receiver on a fixed antenna.

“We’re studying it on one of our fully converted meter routes, with the antenna located at our operations center,” O’Connor says. “We wanted to look at that technology knowing that it’s the way the industry is going. It looks promising, but we won’t take full advantage of it until we modernize our billing system.”

Rehabs and replacements

To address breaks and other pipe-related issues, Rochester uses a variety of methods to repair and replace its transmission and distribution lines.

Cement lining has been the utility’s “go-to” fix for nearly 75 years. Jones says essentially all of the transmission conduits from the treatment plant to the storage reservoirs have been lined, while the distribution mains are being lined in an ongoing program focusing on older, larger-diameter cast iron pipes.

“We find the cost of lining is about $50 to $70 a foot, compared to $300 to $400 a foot for pipe replacement,” Jones says.

Current contractors include Michels and Mainlining America.

Where replacement is called for, Rochester installs new molecular-oriented PVC pipe, and in some cases uses CIPP lining technology.

“We have about 68% cast iron pipe in our distribution system and 27% ductile iron,” O’Connor says. “Fourteen years ago we did an in-house analysis of pipeline breaks, which were on the rise.

“Today we replace or rehabilitate over 6 miles of water mains in the distribution system every year. We started using the molecular PVC pipe after extensive research by our engineering division showed it would hold up better in our predominantly corrosive soils. We also now use plastic (polyethylene) water services for homes and businesses.

“In some specific cases we have used HDPE water mains.”

O’Connor says the utility has completed three CIPP projects since 2013 — about a mile each. “We look at the main break history. If it’s significant, we’ll use CIPP or completely replace the pipe. We use asset management and our GIS to prioritize system improvements.”

Overall, Rochester has been able to extend the useful life of nearly 100% of the piping in the transmission system and over 40% of the mains in the distribution system through the use of field-applied cement lining.

Cathodic protection

Diligent corrosion protection is another reason the Rochester system has held up so well.

Since the 1960s, the utility has applied cathodic protection to mitigate corrosion in older, cast iron and ductile iron portions of its transmission lines — about 30% of the pipe. “When we excavate to do repairs, we incorporate cathodic protection to that section,” O’Connor says. “We also apply the protection on new mains as they are being installed.”

The success of the program is evidenced by the relatively low number of water breaks per year, which Jones says averages 10 per 100 miles of water main — well below the Partnership for Safe Water goal for optimized water systems of 15 per 100 miles of main. “That’s even more significant because the median age of our system is 98 years,” he adds. He attributes the good results to asset management and the use of GIS.

Reduced water loss is another positive result. “Our nonrevenue water volume is significantly lower than that of other regional urban water suppliers,” O’Connor says, “despite our extreme weather and freeze-thaw conditions.”

Jones adds that the improvements are due to training, technology and motivated employees.

“We went to different conferences and trained all our staff,” he says. “We sent teams to Atlanta, Pennsylvania, all over the country, looking at best practices. We tested the best equipment and looked at how we could build a better mousetrap and take ownership of this problem.

“It’s a case study. We were around 28% (nonrevenue water), and we’ve been as low as 13%.”

“Every day when we shut off and change a meter, we take the opportunity to sound the system and listen for leaks,” O’Connor says. “We want to discover leaks when they’re small enough to repair with a sleeve — before they lead to big breaks.

“We’re very proud of what we’ve accomplished. It’s been a great team effort.”

LEED Gold building

Rochester’s water operations center was the first municipal structure in the state of New York to achieve LEED Gold status.

According to Anne Spaulding, manager of Environmental Quality for the city, the building was completed in 2006 and houses the Bureau of Water’s administration, engineering and distribution groups. About 90 employees report there.

“It was constructed on an old brownfield site,” she says. “It was the location of the old Public Works Department garage. The old building was demolished, and the site had to be remediated.”

The new center incorporates LED lighting throughout, as well as extra insulation to prevent heat loss.

It’s just one of the initiatives that have helped Rochester achieve a Certified Climate Smart Community. Other efforts include a green roof on City Hall, solar arrays at a municipal brownfield site, electric vehicles and an expanding bicycle infrastructure.

LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design and aims to create efficient, cost-saving green buildings, as well as other sustainable developments. It is the largest green building rating system in the world.


Comments on this site are submitted by users and are not endorsed by nor do they reflect the views or opinions of COLE Publishing, Inc. Comments are moderated before being posted.