Preserving Water and Wastewater Infrastructure

Long-term approach to pipe repair solves problems today and protects for tomorrow

Preserving Water and Wastewater Infrastructure

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A water main breaks every two minutes in the United States, famously spilling enough water each year to fill over 9,000 swimming pools.

Recognition of the need to renew North America’s public infrastructure has grown, as reflected in the recent U.S. Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act. However, the scale of the problem means that even with $55 billion dollars in new federal funding for water and wastewater projects in the U.S. through 2026, an immediate end to frequent pipe bursts is nowhere in sight.  

For now, amid constant emergencies, utilities may find it challenging to take the long view. Speed is of the essence when responding to pipe breaks, to avoid contamination of the system as well to deal promptly with public hazards and inconvenience. But a long-term solution to the endless game of whack-a-mole calls for long-term thinking. The challenges of continual pipe repairs will be with us for quite some time still to come, and each episode presents an opportunity to make choices that will stand the test of time. In many situations, one choice to consider is the use of a high-quality mechanical coupling system.

Mix and match

For example, one clear challenge in pipe repair is the variety of materials used throughout the water distribution system. In a network that grew rapidly over time, during a period of great technological change, repair crews may find themselves confronted with any one of a wide array of pipe materials — and may not know which ones until they lay eyes on the damage.  

Asbestos-cement pipes, also known as transite pipes, were in wide use from the 1930s until the mid-1970s. While asbestos-bearing materials are now banned for new installations, it is estimated that transite pipes account for about 18% of water distribution piping in the U.S. and Canada. Originally popular for its light weight and low cost, transite pipe tends to break very suddenly and completely, without any prior warning from small leaks as may be found with other types. 

Repairs to these pipes are challenging at best, since any need to cut the material exposes the crew to risk. A long-lasting mechanical coupling that can connect the transite pipe to a section made of different material may be helpful, especially one that can connect sections aligned at an angle. Now available in an extremely wide range of sizes, modern flexible restraint systems can be installed with nothing more exotic than a torque wrench, and are also able to connect pipes of differing outside diameters.  

Play it as it lies

Stainless steel is another commonly encountered material, with challenges of its own. While not inherently hazardous to human health, breaches in the material are normally repaired through welding or flanging. These methods are costly and labor-intensive, and result in highly rigid connections that are vulnerable to ground settlement or dynamic deflection. Steel’s excellent heat retention can also cause warping at high welding temperatures or distortion in the cooling process.  

Similarly, joining is not always an ideal solution for HDPE pipe. Butt or electrofusion may produce excellent results, with joins that are actually stronger than the pipe itself. Fusion may not, however, be feasible if there is water in the line, if space is too constrained for a fusion machine, or if there simply isn’t time.  

In such cases, the right mechanical coupling can provide a long-lasting, flexible restraint connection in short order. Restraint systems that are engineered to allow deflection can join pipes at an angle when needed from the outset. Their flexibility can also help the line deflect rather than break when subjected to future changes in ground conditions.  

Crisis or opportunity

Sophisticated mechanical restraint systems are a proven solution for water main breaks, and one that offers solutions to many common problems. Public utilities will always face budget pressures, and the highest quality choices will not be lowest in cost — on a short-term basis. But a recent natural experiment testifies to the staying power of wise investment.

The city of Apeldoorn in the Netherlands installed a series of MULTI/JOINT mechanical couplings from GF Piping Systems in its water and gas distribution networks 20 years ago. Recently, the city decided to execute a complete replacement of its piping infrastructure. When the MULTI/JOINT units used in Apeldoorn were uncovered by this project, they looked brand new: a testament to solidly engineered design and to the corrosion protection offered by their epoxy coatings. Having performed without incident for two decades, the MULTI/JOINT couplings were clearly in excellent shape to complete their expected service life of 50 years — or longer.

The right action — right now — can be surprisingly effective in preventing bigger and more expensive problems down the road. Where water infrastructure around the world is concerned, the bill from past decisions more focused on present than future is now coming due. Water main breaks challenge the budgets, ingenuity and foresight of public utility managers each and every day. But this struggle calls for reflection rather than frustration, including reflection on what we owe to future generations. 

Each time a pipe bursts, a decision is made in some sense to repair it for now, or repair it for good. The more we invest in long-lasting solutions, in the face of very real pressures to the contrary, the more we invest in a legacy we can be proud of.

Glen Steele is market segment manager, mechanical couplings at GF Piping Systems Canada.  He can be reached at


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