By Ken Alessi & Shukri Elmazi
The nature of a burst pipe is that it is unexpected.
The crews take action and solve the problem as quickly as possible to mitigate the damage. As with any emergency, speed of resolution is often more important than cost. Utility companies are willing to divert staff from other jobs, rent expensive equipment, pay high courier fees, and so on. In contrast, replacing aging infrastructure often comes with the gift of time spent hiring experts to perform a condition assessment, find the optimal solution, and prioritize critical needs first.
Even if you don’t know exactly when and where the next pipe will burst, you can schedule breaks and the effort expended goes directly into streamlining replacement projects. Here are some best practices that utilities are using to solve the historical problems that are eating away at budgets today.
With global supplies under pressure, having the inventory you need on hand has never been more important. It’s impossible to have all the items you need, and the expense of buying expensive parts for a very unlikely event is more of a luxury than a necessity. The combination of knowledge about your infrastructure, such as pipe type, size and age, with the experience of the work teams is critical to maintaining an affordable and profitable inventory.
Take a close look at the demand for repair products and when they are most commonly used. Look at your orders over the past three or four years and try to spot trends. Check to see if there are periods when demand for a particular clamp or coupler is high and other periods when it is low. This helps determine which products should be in high supply and which can be lower.
There are also products that fit a variety of pipe types and diameters. Product design can go a long way in expanding the versatility and scope of repair. For example, there are several coupling products including HYMAX Versa that have the versatility to either connect or repair pipes and offer a great deal of flexibility to make repairs as needed. These types of clamps and couplers can replace up to three traditional products on the shelf or in the truck.
The weather can also play a key role in which repair supplies are in high demand and how quickly you can obtain them. Repairs are often required when the ground shifts during the spring thaw and at other times of the year when the weather is extreme. Keep in mind that deliveries can be more difficult to fulfill when severe weather hits parts of the country.
- A team is installing a Mueller HYMAX Versa in Atlanta, which has the versatility to either join or repair pipes with a high degree of flexibility.
With the right tools
When a repair doesn’t work, it’s often because the wrong practices are being used to get the job done. For example, saddles are probably the most common way to hold pipes in place. Engineers go to great lengths to design the right thrust bearing based on the needs of the project. Bags of concrete mix with holes punched in them and a bucket of water poured on top is not a pressure block, nor is a 4×4 post. Makeshift fuses inevitably fail and then the whole repair effort has to be repeated. However, in many cases, mechanically restrained products such as the HYMAX Grip, which uses a mechanism to grip the tubing, can be used to restrain the tubing, saving repair time and engineering saddle costs.
When connecting pipes, use a coupler, not a clamp. Repair clamps are used to repair holes or broken rings. They are not designed to couple tubes as they do not provide deflection or restraint capacity which could result in failure.
Choosing the right size repair product is also important to making good repairs and you can only know the size of the pipe for sure with an OD tape. It’s not uncommon for people to devise their own methods of measuring the outside diameter of the pipe and get it wrong. This is the first thing to check if a new clamp installation is leaking – do you have the correct size clamp? Some product lines like HYMAX have large OD ranges, which means the products will work with a wider variety of ODs, so there is some margin for error.
As a rule of thumb, make sure you have the following in your truck:
- OD tape
- Torque wrench
- Deep Socket Set
- Adjustable wrenches
- pipe scraper
- cordless impact wrench
- Safety equipment (hard hat, goggles, safety vest, safety shoes, etc.)
- pipe saw/cutter
- trench box
It’s important to keep up to date with new solutions and even brush up on skills that are used on a daily basis. It’s not uncommon for crews to adopt bad habits or use old methods that take longer to get the job done. Bad habits can affect job safety and are usually passed on to new employees.
Both AWWA and NRWA run a series of educational workshops with various manufacturers, many of whom are accredited. If you’d rather dive deep into your favorite repair products, you can call the manufacturer directly and see what courses they offer. While the global pandemic makes it ideal to gain hands-on experience, more and more manufacturers are conducting online training, making it more accessible than ever.
- Installed here in Santa Clara, Calif., the HYMAX Grip uses a mechanism to grip the tubes and can be used to hold the tube back, which Mueller says can save repair time.
Approved contractors vs. in-house
If your budget allows you to hire expert repair companies, this is an excellent option since you don’t own expensive equipment and don’t need to keep up with specialized training. Not having the cost of this highly skilled workforce on your payroll when nothing happens can also justify the higher cost when you need it. Make sure you have an annual review of approved contractors to keep up to date and who is available and what new equipment they may have acquired or perhaps they are willing based on the number of times you have called them to offer preferential prices last year.
The downside of contractors is that they are not always available and are in high demand during major weather events, so availability and pricing can be an issue. If most of your repair work is being done by contractors, you still want to make sure your employees are up to date with training in case that’s the only option you have in times of severe crisis. With this outsourcing approach, engineers often decide when and how the repairs are performed, but utility managers should be part of the planning process. Once a piping system is completed, it is in their hands to ensure the system is working properly.
Own crews have their advantages. They are the most familiar with the system and typically have a broader understanding of all factors leading to repair that can affect long-term outcome. Internal staff typically have a holistic understanding of the system, which is better for inventory management and long-term planning of pipe replacement programs. On-site personnel can troubleshoot a repair and determine that the tube needs to be prioritized in the replacement program based on its condition.
Since both have advantages, a hybrid approach can work very well. In some cases, it may be out of necessity when a utility company doesn’t have the large construction machinery needed to complete the repair. So whatever your approach, it’s important to have these relationships in place before you need them in an emergency.
Choosing the right materials is important
Not all materials are created equal, and price is a factor when choosing one material over another. If you factor in repair or replacement when purchasing a new whistle, opting for the higher quality product will pay off in the long run.
Easy-to-install couplers and clamps can make repair work more efficient, save time and help prevent installation errors. There are a variety of repair couplers that are quick and easy to install. For example, the HYMAX 2 coupling has upturned bolts that are easy to tighten, dramatically reducing installer repair time. Products that don’t need to be disassembled can make a big difference even with a quick installation.
Avoid buying inferior products that will fail prematurely and lead to another repair. It pays to use quality products that are exceptionally durable in harsh conditions and will prevent future pipe damage.
Optimizing your distribution system is your best defense
There are many factors and indicators that lead to a pipe rupture. While these best practices will help optimize your ability to respond and fix an immediate problem, optimizing your distribution system is the fundamental best practice for pipe repair and replacement. Monitoring and managing the water pressure in your system will go a long way in preventing burst pipes, and investing in this technology will reduce your number of burst pipes. Monitoring the progression and severity of leaks also helps crews prioritize repairs before a burst is imminent. 24-hour leak monitoring can be as simple as adding a leak detection node to an existing hydrant that transmits data and notifies crews of upcoming concerns.
All utilities are at a point of digital transformation, there really is no linear path. When a utility is dealing with an excessive number of ruptured pipes or aging infrastructure in dire need of replacement, this is an excellent starting point for bringing in sensors and controls to monitor leaks and regulate pressure.
Ken Alessi is Strategic Product Manager for Mueller Water Products. He has been in the water industry for more than 43 years and has experience in sales management, water distribution and piping design. He holds a master’s degree in hydraulic engineering from the Georgia Plumbing Institute.
Shukri Elmazi is a product manager for Mueller Water Products. He has been in the water industry for more than 16 years and has experience in water infrastructure, wastewater and pumping systems. He holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Rochester Institute of Technology.