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More water-main breaks are likely on their way
Modern engineering can only do so much with hundreds of miles of 100-year-old pipe

Web Editor
M.L. Schultze
Water main breaks are a common sight when temperatures plummet as they will this week and have over much of January.
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With temperatures plunging again this week, water main breaks are expected to follow. And with hundreds of miles of pipelines as old as 100 years or more, there’s not a lot that can be done short-term to head that off.  WKSU’s M.L. Schultze has more.

LISTEN: Water main breaks and the limits of modern engineering

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Northeast Ohio temperatures plummeted well below zero two weeks ago, breaking 130-year-old records. And – a few days later – breaking dozens of water mains.

Most of the pipes, installed well before 1980, are made of iron with no cement lining. That causes two big problems: Cracks as changing temperatures make it expand and contract, and corrosion from the inside.

The University of Akron has mapped out a specialty in corrosion engineering. Chief scientist Joe Payer says there have been advancements in spotting trouble – but a simple solution to the aging infrastructure is not in the works.

“I don’t anticipate there’s any magic wand. We tend to make progress in these areas in more evolutionary – learning how to do it better, keeping better track of conditions, trying to replace things before they get to the point of failure. But the fact is, we have … miles and miles of pipelines and things like very harsh, cold weather just give them an extra strain, extra stress.”

The breaks are often not discovered until sinkholes open up  in streets or sidewalks. The annual cost of repairing water main breaks in North America  is estimated at more than $3 billion.

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