Report: Corrosion caused ‘catastrophic’ water main break

More pipes could be at risk

By: Maddie Forshee, Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published March 26, 2018

 Corrosion caused a massive water main break near 14 Mile Road and Verona Street last October.

Corrosion caused a massive water main break near 14 Mile Road and Verona Street last October.

File photo by Donna Agusti

OAKLAND COUNTY — Crummy pipes.

That’s pretty much the long and the short of a report released recently by the Great Lakes Water Authority explaining the cause of a water main break that occurred last fall and left thousands of people without water for nearly a week.

The break, which happened just after rush hour on Oct. 23, 2017, occurred near 14 Mile Road in West Bloomfield. Residents there — along with more than 300,000 customers in Farmington Hills, Orchard Lake, Novi, Commerce Township, Walled Lake, Rochester Hills, Keego Harbor and Wixom — are serviced by the line.

Water pressure was reduced significantly to those customers, resulting in a boil water alert that lasted as long as seven days for some communities while representatives from the GLWA worked to repair the 48-inch concrete cylinder pipe. Many municipalities provided bottled drinking water to residents affected by what the authority called a “catastrophic failure of the main.”

On top of that, the roadway over the break was out of commission until Nov. 14, when repairs were finished.

Now, five months later, the GLWA has finished an in-depth investigation on what led to the break: corrosion of the pipe from the intrusion of water, oxygen and chlorides into the pipe’s cement.

The pipe was installed in the 1960s, according to the report, and standards during that time allegedly allowed for thinner, higher-strength wire to be embedded into the concrete of the pipe. However, the wire was prone to failure, and the report states that similar pipes showed a high rate of failure.

“I know I had heard that during that time, they had a series of issues with some of the reinforcement of those pipes,” said Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner Jim Nash. “In this area, that was the first major break like that we’ve had in something like 50 years. But it was a national issue, and some other parts of the country have had problems with that batch of pipes.”

Nash had thought that pressure bursts might have caused the break, but pipes are made to withstand a certain amount of wear and tear.

“(The pipes) should be able to stand 360 pounds per square inch, and this was only at 120 (psi) when it blew,” Nash said of the pressure.

Now that a cause has been identified, the GLWA is looking into solutions to prevent a similar problem from happening again.

“The authority’s main takeaway from this water main break experience is the need to continuously improve on our planning and condition assessments to develop resilient systems considering our ever-aging infrastructure,” said Amanda Abukhader, spokesperson for the GLWA, in an emailed response. “Our challenge is to strategically invest in the infrastructure to maintain the excellent level of service our members deserve.”

Nash said the report details a plan that the GLWA has implemented to find other weak pipes with acoustic signal processing.

“They’re going to see if they can find any more of these issues with the wiring. They should have that done within this year, and when they come back to us, they’ll have recommendations on what to do to fix those pipes,” Nash said. “So far, I’m fairly satisfied with what they’re doing.”

Finding weak pipes and fixing them before they burst not only saves headaches for water customers, it’s a significant cash savings too.

“These (pipes) are huge, so they have an impact on the roads around them. The estimated cost of that repair was about a million dollars, and in that big of a system, that’s not such a big hit,” Nash explained. “But anytime you do an emergency repair, you use a lot more money. The benefit of going ahead and replacing these on a schedule (before failure) can be two-thirds of the cost of an emergency repair. It’s the only logical thing to do.”