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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Prevent Frozen Pipes and Fix Leaks this Winter

January 4, 2018 – Don’t let Mother Nature or aging pipes wreak havoc on your home this winter. About 250,000 homes are severely damaged from burst, cracked or frozen water pipes each year – which is why it is essential to take precautions and fix leaks around your home. 

Toilets and faucets are the biggest culprits for leaks. Not only can they waste water, they can increase your water bill if they go undetected. To check for leaks, shut off all your faucets and appliances that use water. Read your meter, then read it again 20 minutes later. If your reading has changed, you have a leak.

If the temperature outside drops to about 10 degrees, you are also at risk for frozen pipes. Check out the video below and follow Fred Wags and Felicia Fluff as they show you around the Aqua house and teach you how to prevent frozen pipes.

 

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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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Diving In: Touring the Ashtabula Bunker Tank

The light-gray interior of the steel cylinder warped and echoed the near whispers of James Parker and Joseph Flahiff as they stood in a shaft of a daylight squeezed through a port hole far above their hard hats.

They were inside one of the city’s best-kept secrets, a structure whose interior rarely receives a human visitor. Surrounded by trees and a high fence, only neighbors and astute drivers know of the water tank, which has been off-line for the past month while interior restoration work was performed by Tank Industries Consultants of Indianapolis.

Parker, inspector with the company, and Flahiff, production manager for the tank’s owner, Aqua Ohio, opened the tank to a media tour. It was a rare chance to crawl inside a time capsule of sorts; the interior was last painted in the 1980s, although there have been periodic inspections that required human intrusion. 

Last year, two inspectors entered the tank from an access port and, using an inflatable raft, inspected the top section of the interior. The inspection was necessary to obtain a cost estimate for the interior painting job ordered by Aqua Ohio as part of its wide-reaching plan to upgrade the Ashtabula water system.

With the tank work nearly complete, Flahiff and Parker proudly showed off the fresh paint job as if they were unveiling a commissioned work of art. 

Repairs were made, the corrosion sandblasted away and an inert coating certified safe for potable water applied. Flahiff said coatings have improved greatly in the past 30 years, and the modern paint will do a better job of protecting the water supply.

The project is part of a major reinvestment plan to improve the area’s water treatment and distribution system. Aqua spent $1.4 million replacing pipe, valves and hydrants last year. Another $300,000 went into the chemical building at the treatment plant and $800,000 went for exterior painting and structural rehabilitation of the Bunker Hill tank.

All of the tanks provide a reserve of water and help maintain consistent pressure at faucets across the system, from a spacious Tudor on Bunker Hill to a bungalow on Lake Erie, where the water we take for granted begins and ends its journey. 

For more:

Where Few Have Gone by Shelley Terry and Carl Feather

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