By Ken Alessi & Shukri Elmazi
A burst pipe is in the nature of the unexpected.
The crews jump into action and solve the problem as quickly as possible to mitigate the damage. As with any emergency, the speed of resolution is often more important than the cost. Utility companies are willing to withdraw staff from other jobs, rent expensive equipment, pay high courier fees, and so on. In contrast, the replacement of aging infrastructures is often accompanied by the time that is used to hire experts for condition assessment, to find the optimal solution and to prioritize critical requirements first.
Even if you may not know exactly when and where the next pipe will burst, it is possible to plan breaks and the associated effort is a direct advantage for the optimization of replacement projects. Below are some best practices utility companies are using to deal with the historical problems scratching budgets today.
With global supplies under pressure, having the inventory you need on hand has never been more important. It is impossible to have every item you need, and the cost of buying expensive parts for a very unlikely event is a luxury rather than a necessity. The combination of knowledge of your infrastructure, such as B. Pipe type, size and age, with the experience of the work teams is critical to maintaining affordable, high-turnover inventory.
Pay careful attention to the demand for repair products and when they are most often used. Look at your orders over the past three to four years and try to spot trends. See if there are times when the demand for certain clamps or couplings is high and other times when it is low. This helps determine which products should be in high supply and which may be less.
There are also products designed for a wide variety of pipe types and diameters. Product design can do a lot to add versatility and scope to repair. For example, there are several coupling products including the HYMAX Versa that offer the versatility to connect or repair pipes and offer a great deal of flexibility to make repairs as needed. These types of clamps and couplings can replace up to three conventional products on the shelf or in the truck.
Weather can also play an important role in determining which repair materials are in high demand and how quickly you can get them. Repairs are often needed when the ground shifts during the spring thaw and at other times of the year when the weather is extreme. Keep in mind that shipments can be more difficult to fill up when severe weather hits parts of the country.
- A crew is installing a Mueller HYMAX Versa in Atlanta, which has the flexibility to either connect or repair pipes with a high degree of flexibility.
With the right tools
When a repair doesn’t work, it is often because the wrong procedures are used to get the job done. For example, pressure blocks are probably the most common method of retaining pipe. Engineers go to great lengths to develop the correct pressure block based on the requirements of the project. Sacks of concrete mixes with holes punched in them and a bucket of water poured on them are not a pressure block or a 4 × 4 post. Makeshift fixations inevitably fail and then the entire repair effort has to be repeated. In many cases, however, mechanically fixed products, such as the HYMAX Grip, which uses a mechanism to grip the pipe, can be used to fix the pipe, saving repair time and cost of engineered pressure blocks.
When connecting pipes, use a coupling, not a clamp. Repair clamps are used to repair holes or ring breaks. They are not designed to couple pipes as they do not offer any deflection or retention capacity which could lead to failure.
Choosing the right repair product is also important to a good repair, and the only way to be sure of the size of the pipe is with an outside diameter tape. It is not uncommon for people to develop their own methods of measuring the outside diameter of the pipe and get it wrong. This is the first thing to check if a new clamp installation is leaking – are you the correct clamp size? Some product lines like HYMAX have wide OD ranges, which means the products will work with a wider variety of ODs, so there is some margin for error.
As a rule of thumb, you have the following in your truck:
- OD tape
- Torque wrench
- Deep socket wrench set
- Adjustable wrench
- Pipe scraper
- Cordless impact wrench
- Safety equipment (hard hat, protective goggles, safety vest, protective shoes, etc.)
- Pipe saw / cutter
- Trench box
It is important to keep up to date with new solutions and even brush up on skills that are used on a daily basis. It’s not uncommon for crews to get bad habits or use old methods that take longer to work. Bad habits can affect work safety and are passed on to new employees.
Both AWWA and NRWA host a number of educational workshops with various manufacturers, many of which are accredited. If you’d rather delve deep into your favorite repair products, you can call the manufacturer directly and find out about the courses they offer. While it is ideal to have hands-on experience, due to the global pandemic, more and more manufacturers are running online training courses to make them more accessible than ever.
- The HYMAX Grip installed here in Santa Clara, California uses a mechanism to grip the pipe and can be used to hold the pipe back, which Mueller says can save repair time.
Approved contractors vs. in-house
If your budget allows you to hire knowledgeable repair companies, this is an excellent option as you will not own the expensive equipment and will need to stay up to date with specialized training. If you don’t have the cost of this highly skilled workforce on your payroll when nothing happens, it can justify the higher cost when you need it too. Make sure you do an annual approved contractor review to keep up to date on who is available and what new equipment they may have acquired, or maybe they are ready, based on the number of calls you have made in the past Year.
The disadvantage of contractors is that they are not always available and are in high demand during major weather events, so availability and pricing can be an issue. Still, if most of your repair work is being done by contractors, you want to make sure your staff is up to date with training in case that is the only option for you during a major crisis. With this outsourcing approach, engineers often decide when and how the repairs will be done, but the operations managers should be part of the planning process. Once a piping system is in place, it is up to you to ensure that the system is working properly.
In-house crews have their advantages. They are most familiar with the system and usually have a more complete understanding of all of the factors that lead to the repair and can affect the long-term outcome. The in-house teams usually have a holistic understanding of the system, which is better for inventory management and long-term planning of pipe replacement programs. On-site teams can fix a repair and decide that the pipe needs to be prioritized in the replacement program based on its condition.
Since both have advantages, a hybrid approach can work very well. In some cases it can even become a mere necessity if a utility does not have the large construction equipment required for the repair. So regardless of your approach, it’s important to have these relationships in hand before you need them in an emergency.
Choosing the right materials is important
Not all materials are created equal and price will be a factor in choosing one material over another. If you are considering repairing or replacing it when making your decision to buy new tubing, then opting for the higher quality product will pay off in the long run.
Couplings and clamps that are easy to assemble can make repair work more efficient, save time and avoid assembly errors. There are a variety of repair couplings that are quick and easy to fit. The HYMAX 2 coupling, for example, has screws pointing upwards that can be easily tightened and drastically reduce repair times for the fitters. Even products that don’t need to be disassembled can make a big difference in quick installation.
Avoid buying inferior products that will fail prematurely and lead to further repairs. It pays to use high quality products that are exceptionally durable in harsh conditions and will prevent future pipe damage.
Optimizing your distribution system is your best defense
There are many factors and indicators that lead to a burst pipe. While these best practices will help optimize your responsiveness and fix an immediate problem, optimizing your manifold system is the basic best practice for repairing and replacing pipes. Monitoring and managing the water pressure in your system goes a long way in preventing burst pipes and investing in this technology will reduce the number of burst pipes you have. Monitoring the progress and severity of leaks also helps crews prioritize repairs before there is a risk of bursting. 24-hour leak monitoring can be as simple as adding a leak detection node to an existing fire hydrant that transmits data and notifies crews of upcoming concerns.
All utilities are in digital transformation at some point, there really is no linear path. When a utility company is dealing with an excessive number of burst pipes or aging infrastructure that needs urgent replacement, this is an excellent entry point for injecting sensors and controls to monitor leaks and manage pressure.
Ken Alessi is strategic product manager for Mueller Water Products. He has worked in the water industry for more than 43 years with experience in sales management, water distribution and pipeline planning. He holds a Masters Degree in Hydraulic Engineering from the Georgia Plumbing Institute.
Shukri Elmazi is Product Manager for Mueller Water Products. He has worked in the water industry for more than 16 years with experience in water infrastructure, wastewater and pumping systems. He holds a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering from the Rochester Institute of Technology.