Disasters such as the aftermath of the February 2021 ice storm that left millions of Texans without running water lay bare the urgent need for updated utility infrastructure across the US. This would involve repairing and replacing hundreds of thousands of miles of water piping — but what should be used in their place?
The dangers of weak-water infrastructure in North America were seen clearly in February 2021, when a major ice storm and freezing temperatures led to a partial failure of the electricity and water supply grids in Texas. The storm led to 210 deaths; and millions were without power for days in freezing temperatures that burst water pipes, froze wells and shut down water treatment plants across the state. Roughly 13 million Texans were told to boil water for safety reasons after the storm; but residents of rural towns such as Aspermont, Carey and Northfield were left without running water after the aging metal and cast iron pipes burst.
When drinking water was cut off to these Texas cities, Dow worked with local municipalities, businesses and associations such as the Plastics Pipe Institute (PPI), Pipeline Plastics, McElroy Manufacturing and Modern Dispersions to focus on the future by donating a more durable and sustainable piping solution to the citizens in need. The 42,000 feet (equal to 116 football fields) of leak- and corrosion-resistant high-density polyethylene (HDPE) PE4710 piping used to replace portions of the transmission lines were produced by Pipeline Plastics using Dow’s CONTINUUM™ Bimodal Polyethylene Resins.
As the one-year anniversary of the Texas storm approaches and we head into the coldest months of the year, we reflect on the need for retrofitting and rebuilding aging infrastructure that is crucial to avoid future disasters like these.
Making water networks work
Image credit: Dow
Extreme weather events, like the now-infamous winter storm that froze parts of Texas, have forced us to reckon with how fragile and aged our infrastructure is in the face of dramatic temperature swings. The EPA estimates that 10 percent of homes in the US have leaks that may waste 90 gallons or more of water per day. A November 2021 Houston Chronicle story noted that the 311 Houston Service Helpline received approximately “25,660 reports of water leaks between January and October of 2021. This was up from just over 19,000 in the same period last year.”
Many of these leaks were due to decades-old infrastructure made of materials such as steel, cast iron, ductile iron, copper, lead, asbestos cement and reinforced concrete pipes that are now reaching the end of their design life. Originally intended to last 20 to 50+ years, these networks are unable to operate reliably under increasingly harsh conditions. What’s more, the American Civil Society of Engineers issues “America’s Infrastructure Report Card” every four years — and 2021’s GPA is a C-.
The city of Aspermont’s single water supply line before the storm was a 50-year-old, eight-inch steel piping system. 1,500 feet of the transmission line froze solid during the storm. Carey and Northfield had a 14-inch cast-iron pipe dating back to the 1930s, which suffered a catastrophic circular failure. Cases like these are seen across the US, adding up to hundreds of thousands of miles of water piping that need to be repaired and replaced — but what should be used in their place?
The future of the water network
Image credit: Dow
Pipes made with CONTINUUM™ Bimodal Polyethylene Resins offer the longest lifecycle of any potable water pipe material, due to the resins’ durability — which means less need for maintenance and replacement. The partners were awarded a 2021 Municipal Leadership Award from the Alliance for PE Pipe in the “first-time user” category for the project, which allowed local governments and the Red River Authority of Texas to restore reliable water service to these communities.
In the long term, these networks will provide a more sustainable water system, avoiding an estimated 3.5 million gallons of annual water loss from breaks and leaks in the system for decades to come, and will require less maintenance during their 100+-year design life. Resilient to extreme weather events, HDPE pipes meet or exceed all industry performance standards, offering the longest lifecycle of any potable water pipe across virtually any climate.
CONTINUUM Resins also create seamless, leak-resistant pipelines that can play a significant role in water conservation efforts. By enabling the use of pipes that preserve water quality and prevent water loss, these pipes are helping ensure the safety and health of communities.
Protecting our most valuable resource
The “once-in-a-lifetime” storm that resulted in the partial failure of Texas’ electricity and water grids may turn out to be far more common than anticipated as the climate continues to evolve. To ensure that all citizens have access to the basic human necessity of clean drinking water, it is imperative that we rebuild our nation’s infrastructure. We have the technology — and we’re putting it to work.