What Makes a Pipeline Deteriorate to a State of Failure?


According to AWWA’s 2016 Benchmarking Survey, the average water and wastewater utility has seven breaks per 100 miles of piping every year. Tip-top systems experience just four breaks in that distance, while those at the bottom have 18.

While it’s interesting to note the difference in break rates, it’s unfair to compare one utility to another, as a multitude of factors come into play as to why pipelines can deteriorate to state of failure. Countless sources of stress both inside and outside a pipe related to geographical location, soil-pipe type interactions, age, and construction are among factors that can take their toll on the pipe’s condition.

For utilities, the one constant across the spectrum is the acknowledgment that simply replacing pipeline assets is cost prohibitive, and that advanced condition assessment services like those provided by Pure Technologies (Pure) can help utilities confidently make informed decisions that significantly reduce capital and operating costs.


Single-episode blowouts garner all the attention

While single-episode blowouts are quite rare, these tend to garner most media attention, and cause the most obvious blowbacks to the pipeline operator. What the public doesn’t usually notice are the pinhole leaks, hairline cracks, corrosion and leaking gaskets that tend to occur first.

Most catastrophic failures are caused by a sudden unexpected stress such as a water hammer acting on an existing weak point in the pipe. There is a widely held belief that the failure process is a simple one, where a pipe corrodes to the point at which it can no longer withstand the applied internal and external forces, resulting in a main break. However, research has shown that the failure process is more complex than expected.

Corrosion plays a significant role in water main failures, but soil-pipe interactions, manufacturing techniques and human error are also important factors. Failures also take place in multiple stages rather than in a single episode. Early damage not only weakens portions of the pipe, it also allows water to escape, causing corrosion and washing out of the supporting soil.


Age alone does not indicate high-risk pipes

Pipes at highest risk are typically constructed using dated materials or methods, running through an area with heavy vehicle traffic. Urban centers typically represent significant loss potential from damage caused by water main breaks as a result of high-density buildings, underground infrastructure, important traffic thoroughfares, and economic loss potential of power, gas, water utilities and legal cases.

The net result is that age alone cannot be relied on as an indicator of a high-risk pipe.


Types of pipe material and typical cause of failure

Prestressed concrete cylinder pipe (PCCP) has a unique failure mechanism: high strength steel pre-stressing wires that provide strength to the pipe can become distressed and reduce the structural integrity of the pipe. Broken wires can be caused by physical damage to the pipe, corrosion, or hydrogen embrittlement.

Areas of broken wires may be accompanied by leaks, especially in pipelines smaller than 48 inches in diameter, where the internal steel cylinder corrodes at the same rate as the wires or where water escaping through the joint encourages corrosion. Leakage has been proven to be a key indicator of structural condition in lined cylinder pipe, a type of PCCP in which the prestressing wires are placed directly on the steel cylinder. These types of leaks can create voids around the pipe and introduce added stress at an existing weak point.

Cast iron pipes corrode, become brittle and are prone to cracking. Many older North American cities have cast iron pipes that were installed in the 1800s, prior to the existence of pipeline standards, when methods of construction were non-uniform and advanced quality control programs did not exist. Consequently, many pipelines were installed using what are considered poor construction practices by today’s standards.

Ductile iron pipes have failure mechanisms similar to those of cast iron pipes; however they become less brittle and consequently degrade at a slower rate. These pipes may be capable of supporting large leaks for longer periods of time without failing immediately.

Plastic and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes are less prone to corrosion and less brittle than iron pipes. Failures in these pipes are often traced to leaking joints where the escaping water creates voids around the pipeline, causing unplanned stresses on the pipe.

Steel pipes primarily fail due to loss of integrity at welds, and external corrosion causing severe pitting and weakening the pipe wall. Both losses of joint integrity and through-wall corrosion pits lead to leakage long before failure. Older steel pipes in aggressive environments are capable of sustaining massive levels of leakage for decades before failing.


Making ongoing condition assessment part of proactive asset management

While pipe material and typical pipe stresses are factors that can contribute to a state of pipe failure, it remains impossible to compare one pipeline to another, and to make generalized statements about remaining service life, especially based on age and depreciation. Instead, it pays to conduct ongoing condition assessment, and then to use that risk-driven asset data collection to reduce the likelihood of replacing pipe that can safely and effectively serve communities for several more years.