Water Infrastructure: A Brief History

Think for a second: How did water infrastructure get so advanced?

Access to water has become almost second nature to us. We turn the faucet on and out comes clear, clean water. We don’t even think about it. Isn’t that amazing? A feat of human ingenuity, the way water is delivered to us today is by no means a simple feat. Take a look below for a brief timeline of the evolution of water infrastructure:

Sure, there were plenty of innovations and breakthroughs along the way, but think of the above as a major highlights reel. Let’s walk through them.

 


Ancient Rome

The Roman Empire made its mark on the Western world in a number of ways, most notably through groundbreaking advancements in engineering. The invention of the aqueduct, the world’s first formal plumbing and water transportation system, truly helped early Rome become as vast and forward-thinking as it became. Many European societies soon followed suit by adopting the aqueduct system.

 

The Enlightenment

As European civilization rapidly expanded and populations increased, new advancements in water were made, primarily in water sanitation. Private water companies were established to account for the vast intake of water, and developments in water filtration found sand filters to be useful (if rudimentary) in removing water of contaminants.

 

The 1900s

The use of filters in water sanitation was abandoned in the 19th century for chlorination. This process is the fundamental way we sanitize water today, and prevents the possible spread of diseases that filtration would oftentimes result in.

 

Today

Today, clean water is an absolute priority. New water sanitation techniques, like desalination and fluoridation offer innovative and forward-thinking means to ensuring our water is the best it can be. The Safe Drinking Water Act, passed in 1974, placed an emphasis on the quality of the water that is consumed. The act is still enforced today.

The future of water infrastructure is still unwritten. Between engineering and scientific breakthroughs throughout the course of history, we are always working toward making sure we all have access to safe, quality water. Water is one of our most precious and valuable natural resources, so we must all do our part to make sure that it remains in good hands.

 

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Why Water Mains Break

One of the biggest concerns for water utilities during extremely hot or cold weather is water main breaks. Water mains are expected to last a long time – as long as 100 years in many cases. But with many miles of pipe buried underground, it’s reasonable to expect a particular section of pipe will fail or break at some point. The challenge for water utilities is to work proactively to minimize the number of breaks and to respond effectively when a main does break.

While the oldest water mains were made of wood, by the late 1800s, a variety of iron pipe was being used to construct water distribution systems. Common iron varieties included cast and galvanized in the early part of the 20th Century, with galvanized used primarily for smaller diameter pipe. Cast iron pipe was used until the late 1950s when stronger, more flexible ductile iron pipe became common. Plastic pipe, including Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) and High Density Polyethylene (HDPE) became common in the 1970s. The primary difference between these two plastic pipes is that PVC is stiffer than HDPE, which is more flexible. Even though pipe is expected to last for decades, that doesn’t mean it won’t break at some point. While it is impossible to predict specific pipe breaks, we know that environmental conditions are a major factor in water main breaks.

In the northern and northeast areas of the country where winters are more extreme, cold soils and cold water combine to add stress to pipes, which can—and often do—result in breaks. Iron, like all metals, contracts as temperatures drop. This problem is more common when the source water is surface water (rivers and lakes). These waters are significantly affected by air temperature and can drop to near freezing in the winter. A temperature difference of just 10 degrees in water or air temperatures can cause pipes to contract or expand. Additional stress inside and outside the pipe occurs as temperatures near the freezing point, making the pipe vulnerable to breakage. Water temperature changes more slowly than air temperature changes so the impact of cold water on pipes can cause breakage to take place as many as a couple days after temperatures freeze. Water systems with groundwater sources (wells) have more stable water temperatures because the water is not affected by air temperatures, and therefore, not as significantly impacted. 

Just as pipes are adversely affected by cold weather conditions, they are also affected by severe heat. In some groundwater systems in the southern and southwestern states, the soils are like sponges and hold lots of water. However, during extended periods of hot temperature when high demands for water increases water withdrawal from the aquifers, the soil becomes very dry. In these conditions, the soil contracts and subsides, pulling away from the pipe and diminishing support for the water main. The absence of support for the main can cause it to break. This particular problem led the City of Houston, Texas to begin to convert its groundwater supply to surface water.

Although older mains are generally more susceptible to breaks, breaks can occur on newer mains. This is most likely the result of improper installation or a manufacturing issue with that particular section of pipe. By examining trends in water main breaks over time, a utility is better able to identify categories of pipe that are more prone to breaks, and thus proactively target that pipe for replacement. Aqua employs such tactics in determining which mains to replace. By the end of 2013, Aqua expects to have spent $170 million of its $325 million capital improvement program on water main replacement and associated work.

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The History of Water Infrastructure

It simmers and steams and doesn’t boil when watched.

It fills up bathtubs to the brim, sloshing back and forth.

It finds itself accompanying your nightly dinner in a glass filled with ice.

It’s easy to overlook the importance of water in our everyday lives; we need it and we thrive upon it. But it’s even easier to forget the leaps and bounds necessary to get it in your faucet today. It wasn’t always this simple. Here’s a brief timeline of how water become accessible to you:

 

Okay, so maybe it wasn’t that simple, but those are some pretty key events that built the water infrastructure needed for the way we use water today. Here’s some more information about those milestones.

Ancient Rome:

Rome wasn’t built in a day, which meant innovation for even the most basic of necessities could take a staggering amount of time. Technology seemed to move a little faster once the first aqueducts were built to transport water. This step in early innovation that culminated in Early Rome soon took off throughout Europe. It was the most advanced plumbing system of its day.

 

Enlightenment Era:

After a more advanced plumbing system was introduced during the Enlightenment Era, it became a priority to provide sanitary water to the increasing population. Shortly after, it was necessary to bring in private water companies to account for the overwhelming amount of people. Water filtration was in its early experimental stages and used sand filters to take care of sanitation.

1900’s:

However, in the early 1900’s, filters were no longer used after a faulty mishap, which caused a disease outbreak. Instead, chlorination became the new way to provide clean water. While the process has been tweaked throughout history, it remains to be the fundamental way we purify water as of today. 

Today:

Other techniques such as water fluoridation and desalination are also used in certain areas of the world to provide safer water. Laws surrounding water began to pick up speed as the need for regulation became imperative. In 1974, the Safe Drinking Water Act was passed, placing an emphasis on the quality of the water that is consumed, and it’s still enforced today.

It’s everyone’s responsibility to continue the trend to healthier and safer water. The Ancient Romans knew this and were able to overcome many logistical boundaries. But, there is still more to be done in both conservation and availability. The infrastructure of water is rapidly changing and progressing, which is integral when it comes to nurturing one of our most valuable natural resources.

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Getting To Know CEO Nick DeBenedictis

You may know that Nick DeBenedictis is the President and CEO of Aqua, but what you might not about his love for dogs and a vacation spot he’s called home in the summer for six decades. Get to know Nick a little more as he answers 10 questions about the past, present and future.

1. You have been Aqua America’s CEO for more than 20 years. Looking back what do you feel is your greatest accomplishment?

Without a doubt, it’s the investment of more than $2 billion in needed water and wastewater infrastructure. Our initial and primary focus was on upgrading and rehabilitating the plants and treatment systems to stay ahead of the more stringent federal, state and local water quality regulations that were taking effect at that time. Afterward, we ramped up the replacement of our aging distribution systems. These programs were part of our mission and commitment to provide reliable service and clean, quality drinking water.

2. When you were first appointed Chairman and CEO, what was your vision for Aqua? 

I was nervous! It was my first and only position as a CEO, and although I had governmental and non-profit executive experience, I had never been at a publicly traded company. At the time, the company was not doing so well financially, so my first priority was to stabilize the finances.

3. What have you learned from the company’s success?

The successes have been our key acquisitions and the expansion of the company from local to national. We needed to do small acquisitions first and gradually take on the bigger prospects. Through this process, were able to assess the risks and apply improvements as we moved from smaller to larger acquisitions. 

4. What do you believe our employees should know about Aqua?

I think it’s important that employees understand our history and culture of being a leader in a very crucial industry. I hope that it will help them with new challenges that require a new investment of time, knowledge and money.

5. What would you like employees to know about you? 

I care a lot about the employees and the company, and what we do every day to improve the environment. The proper balancing of the four-legged stool [employees, customers, shareholders and community] is so important to our company, and I hope employees understand that it is essential to Aqua’s survival.

6. Who are the members of your immediate family? Do you have any pets? 

My wife and I have been married since 1968 — our wedding song was “Cherish” by the 5th Dimension. We have two children and five grandchildren. Throughout much of our married life, we had dogs — a Bassett Hound and Boxers. I love my dogs. We don’t have one now and I miss that. 

7. What is your favorite place to vacation? 

For 63 years I’ve been going to the North Wildwood beach [in New Jersey].

8. What is your favorite holiday? 

Christmas - the time of giving. But I’ve got to be honest, I love Halloween. Each year I try to be home because I really enjoy giving candy to the kids and seeing their costumes. Giving out the giant-sized Hershey bars has become a tradition at my house.

 

9. Do you have a role model or a hero? Who is it? 

My father, he had the most influence on me. He was hardworking and very generous — always giving to others, he was a very nice guy.

10. There are many grateful recipients of your personal thank-you notes. How did someone in environmental engineering become so communication savvy?

It’s just instinctive to acknowledge and show respect for people who do something good for the company or society. I’ve learned that expressing your appreciation verbally or in writing with genuine thank-you notes is a small but sincere gesture.

 

For More Information:

Aqua Management

Nick DeBenedictis Forbes Profile

Drexel University LeBow College Of Business Nick DeBenedictis Highlight

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Our 125-Year Journey

It all began in 1886 when a group of engineering professors from Swarthmore College in southeastern Pennsylvania became concerned about the safety of the local water supply. With typhoid fever surfacing in nearby towns, they were taking no chances. They abandoned their wells and established their own water company with one primary goal: to protect public health. Starting that home-grown organization, Springfield Water Company, was like throwing a pebble in a pond.

These educators could not have imagined the huge ripple effects that would be produced by their tiny venture, which served the residents of a small village. The company ultimately grew into Aqua America, a publicly traded, water- and wastewater-utility holding company, serving about three million people in 10 states.

The company’s 125-year journey has been an adventure with growth, expansion, building and modernization. Throughout the years, the company’s core mission has remained true to its origins: to provide quality water in a way that ensures public health and environmental quality.

“We’ve always been the industry leader for sustainability of our product and environmental protection, long before those two phrases became the mantra,” said Nick DeBenedictis, Aqua America chairman and CEO. “To meet those goals, we have made huge capital investments in our infrastructure. We are an engineering and technology-driven company that strives for excellence in our product.”

During DeBenedictis’ 20-year tenure, the company has experienced unprecedented growth through acquisitions. Focusing on its core business of water and wastewater utilities, Aqua has completed more than 250 ventures, which have quadrupled its customer base and more than tripled the number of employees, from approximately 500 to 1,700.

“Our vision for growth through acquisition was driven by the need for greater efficiency in our country’s water systems,” explained DeBenedictis, the company’s longest-serving chairman.

“The United States has more than 50,000 water systems, and less than one percent of these systems serve more than 100,000 people. Much of the infrastructure dates back to the early 1900s. A huge capital investment is necessary over the next 20 years for our country’s systems to meet more stringent federal and state drinking-water regulations and standards. By acquiring smaller, less efficient, less well-capitalized companies and investing in improvements, Aqua is helping to meet this need.

“At the same time, this growth strategy benefits our customers and employees, as well as our investors,” he added. “Since 1992, we’ve increased our value to shareholders from $100 million market capitalization to about $4.5 billion market capitalization.”

For more information about Aqua America & Nicholas DeBenedictis check out:

About Aqua

What it Means to Lead: Nicholas DeBenedictis, Chairman, CEO, and President of Aqua America, Inc.

Pennoni Honors Aqua America Chairman and CEO Nicholas DeBenedictis with Award

Aqua America NY Times Section

 

 

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