COMMENTARY: What’s Best Are Strong, Durable & Long-Lasting Water Pipes for Our Communities

By Kevin Hardiman

The local newspaper for my town described us as having two seasons: winter and construction.

I’m sure my peers around the country can appreciate the joke. But the truth is, we do spend the time between periods in which we can carry out projects planning for the important infrastructure work that our communities need. In Tewksbury, Massachusetts, where I’m the town engineer, we’re focused on improving our water distribution systems and roadways. A large project I’m currently overseeing involves upsizing 8-in. pipes to 12-in. ductile iron pipes and then repaving a major thoroughfare.

Spring and summer in Massachusetts are beautiful seasons that try to make up for the brutal conditions we see over our winters. The frigid temperatures, snow, ice and freezing rain really do a number on our roads but repaving Route 38, which doubles as the town’s Main Street, can cause a lot of traffic inconveniences for our residents. Replacing pipes underneath that road can cause even greater disruption, which is why we planned to do the infrastructure work before the roadway construction. Anything we can do to minimize disruptions will go a long way toward community relations.

My team and I are always mindful of how the work we know that needs to be done will impact our neighbors, whom are not as familiar with the technical processes. We also need to be mindful of the town’s budget and how our projects fit with other priorities, how we explain what we’re doing to municipal officials and the public, and how we’re planning for the long term.

One of the most common mistakes seen in public planning is designing projects for today instead of looking ahead to tomorrow. Tewksbury is a growing town. We expect to see more homes, more businesses, more recreational and community facilities, and more public institutions over the next generation. All of that development will need access to quality roads and clean water.

Our current water infrastructure was installed in the 1950s. For being nearly 70 years old, it’s still functioning. But we have to plan ahead. Those pipes are nearing the end or have out-lived their service life and rather than wait for the system to start breaking, we’re beginning to look at the work we’ll need to perform to keep clean drinking water supplied to residents and businesses and for wastewater to efficiently be removed.

We use a competitive process to determine the best pipe materials. As a civil engineer I know what can happen to pipes after they’re put into the ground. As we develop specifications for our water main projects we are looking at several factors including durability. These pipes have to withstand being in the ground for decades of Massachusetts’ winters. If they’re not durable enough to handle the frost, they’re going to break, which can lead to consequences and significant costs.

Through our research, we found that ductile iron pipes give our community the best long-term option for a smooth and well-run water distribution system. The investment we’re making into our infrastructure will pay off when we don’t have to go back under the roadway to replace pipes long before the end of their expected life cycles. The goal is to achieve the full potential from the infrastructure investments at the start of the project. Additionally, being consistent with our pipe material choice reduces the repair parts we need to keep on hand and reduces time spent training staff on repair techniques associated with different types of pipe material.  These are ways we can reduce our operating costs. We have confidence that these pipes will last at least a generation, and will be able to handle the growth and development we expect to happen.

These decisions aren’t made on whims. We use a data-driven process to thoroughly examine bids and to see how they fit with our project needs. The Public Works Director relies on my professional judgement when I make a recommendation for what kinds of piping we should use in water system or materials for roadway paving. I am always thinking of what’s best for my community. And what’s best is that we use strong, durable pipes that deliver clean drinking water for a century.

Kevin Hardiman, P.E., is the town engineer for Tewksbury, Massachusetts.

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