Illinois infrastructure isn’t sexy. Sure, most people welcome the new highway or spectacular bridge that shaves a few minutes off their commute, but maintaining it is a hard sell. It’s even worse when it’s out of sight, like the pipes that deliver clean water to our homes, schools, and offices. Few outside the civil engineering profession give a moment’s thought to our aging water infrastructure, yet it’s of vital importance.

Safeguarding our water supply is going to be very expensive, yet doing nothing isn’t an option. That means we urgently need some new and better ways of maintaining the pipes that carry our water. Here’s a look at the problem.

Fixing the Decay Will Be Expensive

Every four years the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) issues a report card on the nation’s infrastructure. In 2013 they awarded a “D”, giving the same score to both the drinking water and wastewater systems. In 2010, according to the American Water Works Association, (AWWA), we were spending about $13bn a year to replace aging systems, yet still falling behind. They estimate that by 2040 we should be spending $40bn a year on replacing pipes.

Illinois did a little better, earning a C- for drinking water and D+ for wastewater. That’s better than many states but still shows an urgent need for increased spending. The ASCE report card puts that figure at $19bn over the next 20 years.

In Chicago Work is Underway

As residents will know since 2012 Chicago has been striving to replace water mains faster than they are wearing out. Given that between 1890 and 1920, the city laid 75 miles a year from, that meant upping the rate from 30 to 88 miles per year. Now you know why your water bill has been going up!

Why Replace?

It might not be obvious why water pipes wear out. Mechanical things need repair and overhaul because parts rub and wear, but pipes are static, so why must they be replaced?

The answer has three parts: erosion, corrosion, and lead.

First, as river valleys and beach pebbles illustrate, flowing water wears everything it touches. This happens slowly, but many of Chicago’s pipes have been in place over a century and they’re getting thinner Second, elements in the water react with metal pipes, causing corrosion either reduces pipe thickness or obstructs the flow. Adding chemicals to the water forms a coating that keeps corrosion in place, as opposed to in our faucets, but the pipes themselves can still corrode. And third, Chicago still has a lot of lead pipes. Lead actually performs well as a water pipe, except for the small matter of contaminating the water. Water treatment prevents this from happening, but it’s not a fail-safe method and carries ongoing costs.

Closer to Home

Even when every mile of city pipe has been replaced, property owners will still face the problem of aging pipes in their buildings. Galvanized steel pipes last about 50 years, brass pipes 70 and copper longer still, but there’s also the problem of lead service lines, which the city will only partially replace. And don’t forget that water pressure in tall buildings, (meaning more than 10 floors,) can be high enough to rupture pipes already thinned by age.

Replacing pipes in buildings is hugely disruptive. Cabinets, tile and wall treatments must be removed so walls can be opened up. There are dust and debris, and in older buildings, the possibility of disturbing asbestos. Plus, historic interiors are damaged or lost completely.

Is pipe restoration an alternative?

Fortunately, wholesale replacement isn’t always necessary. Nu Flow has a proprietary method of lining pipes with a durable epoxy coating. This gives years of protection against leaks while keeping out contaminants like lead. Destruction of interior walls is avoided and the process can be completed in just days. Pipes are given a new lease of life, building occupants are spared extensive upheaval, and the costs are far lower.

Perhaps because they’re out of sight, water pipes, like most aspects of infrastructure, tend to be neglected. Replacement, as the country is learning, is expensive, but in some situations at least, pipe restoration is a viable alternative.