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Impact of Water Main Breaks on Food & Beverage Establishments

by Saumya Garg

In the United States, potable water is supplied to homes and businesses via a network of 2.2 million miles of transmission lines and distribution mains. Given the importance of drinking water, the efficient operation of these pipelines is imperative to not only the normal functioning of our lives but also to maintain our health and well-being. However, the past few years have seen a steady increase in the incidents of water main breaks throughout the country. According to a Utah State University survey, between 2012 and 2018 water main break rates in North America increased by 27% to amount to approx. 14 breaks per 100 miles per year. Besides the grave loss of drinking water, this figure is especially alarming when one considers the deep impact of these breaks on public health. Cracks and fractures in water pipes create intrusion points for pathogenic bacteria to re-enter treated water. To cite an example, two major line breaks in Cabool, Missouri (winter of 1989-90) led to 243 cases of bloody diarrhea caused by an E. coli infection. This was one of the largest waterborne outbreak of E. coli recorded in the US.

Drinking water distribution
Figure 1: Drinking water distribution system. (Source: https://www.epa.gov/dwsixyearreview/drinking-water-distribution-system)

Water pipelines in use currently vary considerably in age and material. As a result, no single reason can be attributed to pipe failure. Pipes get damaged due to a cumulative impact of several factors. Some of these are:

  • Age of the pipes: Pipelines in the US have been laid out over the past 100 years. Surprisingly, a lot of the century old pipes are still being used. Pipes installed prior to 1960s are especially concerning since they were made from older cast iron with lead joints. These pipes are nearing the end of their service lives and need immediate replacement. The Utah State University survey found that the average age of a failing water main was 50 years.
  • Temperature: It has been observed that water main break incidents increase during the winter. This is primarily due to the difference in thermal expansion of pipe material and water at freezing temperature.
  • Pipe material and Corrosion: Both internal and external corrosion of the pipe material can cause leaks and breaks in the pipeline causing harmful chemicals and microorganisms to enter the water system. Cast Iron pipes have been found to have the highest failure rate due to corrosion.
  • Soil conditions: Most utilities in the US rate their soil as having a moderate to high corrosive index. Besides corrosiveness, shifts in soil due to construction or due to the earth’s natural forces also cause pipe breaks.
  • Other factors such as hydraulic transients (or water hammer), material fatigue, inadequate design, improper installation, manufacturing defects, external impact stress etc. also contribute to pipeline damage.

The USEPA has estimated that replacing or refurbishing the aging and deteriorating pipelines for drinking water will amount to USD 312.6 billion and will take about 20 years. One would imagine that there would be a sense of urgency around upgrading the drinking water infrastructure of the country given the financial and health impact. Sadly, the current scenario is entirely reactive with repairs being conducted only after the fact. The slow process of break discovery to service restoration leaves thousands of people stranded.

A vast number of water main breaks experience loss of water pressure at the break site resulting in Boil Water Advisory (BWA) notices issued by local authorities. Impacted residents and businesses are advised not to use tap water for anything. With little to no in-house water treatment, a lot of local restaurants are forced to close for the duration of the advisory. The ones that choose to remain open must bear a significant cost of substitution, for example, by using bottled water. As soon as a BWA is issued, every equipment utilizing water, from the soda machine to the ice machine, needs to be thoroughly cleaned out and all pre-made product from such machines needs to be thrown away. In November 2019, a BWA was issued in Arlington, VA which forced a local Starbucks to stop serving all beverages. Another local restaurant had to spend a significant amount of money on buying bottled water, ice and canned soda, besides paying overtime wages to staff members for carrying out cleaning and sanitization of equipment and cutlery.

In lieu of the vast financial impact of water main breaks on food and beverage facilities, it only makes sense to setup an in-house water disinfection system to ensure uninterrupted and smooth operation. In fact, some pathogenic bacteria, such as Giardia, are so abundant in the environment, that even minor intrusions can contaminate the water supply, irrespective of pipe age. The superior efficacy of UV disinfection systems in combating pathogenic waterborne micro-organisms makes them a must-have for any F&B establishment. UV based disinfection systems are unique in that they do not need secondary disinfection steps and have been found to be one hundred percent effective in decontaminating water. It would be wise for F&B facilities to be proactive with in-house water treatment rather than face the dire circumstances they will encounter sooner or later.

Further reading:

  1. Deteriorating Buried Infrastructure Management Challenges and Strategies. USEPA, 2002.
  2. Drinking Water Infrastructure Needs Survey and Assessment. USEPA’s 6th Report to Congress, 2015.
  3. Water Main Break Rates in the USA and Canada: A Comprehensive Study. Utah State University, 2018.
  4. Intrusion and leakage in drinking systems induced by pressure variation. Mora-Rodríguez J, Amparo López-Jiménez P, Ramos HM. Journal of Water Supply: Research and Technology – Aqua 2012;61(7):387.
  5. Drinking Water Quality and Human Health: Impact of Harmful Algae and Water Pipe Breaks. Cynthia Jean Lin. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 2018.
  6. Drinking Water and Public Health in an Era of Aging Distribution Infrastructure. Martin Allen, Robert Clark, Joseph A. Cotruvo, Neil Grigg. Public Works Management & Policy, 2018.
  7. Predicting Health Risks from Intrusion into Drinking Water Pipes over Time. John Gibson, Bryan Karney, and Yiping Guo. Journal of Water Resources Planning and Management, Volume 145 Issue 3 – March 2019
  8. https://wjla.com/news/local/water-advisory-restaurants-spent-thousands