Important Information

By Jim Hegarty, PE

I have been called in to look at a fair number of pipe failures over the course of my engineering career. One thing I notice is in the rush to fix the failure, there is often little focus on figuring out why the failure occurred. It is easy to miss clues to a systemic problem unless someone on your team plays “Columbo” and gathers some clues to analyze when the dust settles. Here are 12 things I think you should do every time a pipe fails:

  1. Get to the site as soon as possible, before too much damage spreads.
  2. Photograph everything. The ground, the pipe, the hole, any damage. Take as many photographs as you can, from several different angles. They may help you recall the state of the site later when you try to piece everything back together.
  3. Mark the top of the failed pipe as soon as it is exposed. The location of the failure relative to the top of the pipe can tell you a lot about why it failed.
  4. Make a sketch of the pipe layout. It will help you to reconstruct the scene later.
  5. Remove the failed pipe carefully to preserve its condition. The closer it remains to intact, the easier it is determine how and why it failed.
  6. Number or mark each piece of pipe shown in your layout sketch. Save and preserve each marked pipe you remove.
  7. Collect and mark soil samples from the pipe trench, preferably not wetted by the failure. Take care to sample soil representative of the soil in contact with the pipe. This can be a valuable tool to diagnose either an external corrosion or soil-structure failure.
  8. Check pump records if the pipe operates under pressure. Surges (also called transients or water hammer) can put tremendous stress on buried pipes. Power outages, valve closings and pump starts and stops can create dangerous surge pressures.
  9. Ask questions to understand anything you think may have played a role in the failure.
  10. Review the construction plans, as they may harbor clues to a contributing cause of a break.
  11. Study the construction inspection reports.
  12. Keep a map of your breaks or incidents. They can help you identify trends or patterns that otherwise may not be obvious.

By James R. Hegarty, P.E., Barbara Marczak, P.E., and Brian Vilmont, P.E.

Our infrastructure provides the foundation on which our communities are built: the roads that enable our transportation, the watermains that provide our drinking water, the sewers and treatment plants that put clean water back into our environment, and the buildings upon which our communities depend for services and support. All the assets that make up our infrastructure systems must be managed in order to maintain their value to our communities. Without asset management, our limited funds will continue to be depleted with reactionary repairs instead of leveraged to maximize the value of each dollar spent.

Asset management is not a new concept. The old Aesop fable of the grasshopper, who sings during summer instead of preparing for winter, and the ant, who stores up food for winter during the summer, ended with this lesson: “It is best to prepare for the days of necessity.”  We know that our assets will not last forever, but we can get the most value from them if we invest in their management and maintenance. Like the ant, it is important that we do our work now and not wait for the proverbial winter for our assets to fail. To be able to choose from the many tools available for asset management, it is important to understand the fundamentals first.

How asset management works

The goal of asset management is to provide the desired level of service from our assets at the lowest, long–term costs. Proactive asset management can reduce short–term reactionary expenditures and make the most out of the available funding. To accomplish this, we need to follow these basic steps:

1. Appraisal

  • Identify Assets
  • Document System History & Concerns
  • Determine Existing & Proposed Level of Service
  • Select Desired Management System
  • Develop Work Plan *
    *Required to apply for SAW Grant Funding

2. Inventory

  • Mapping
  • Criticality Review

3. Assessment

  • Condition: Physical  & Capacity
  • Risk
  • Cost: Maintenance & Rehabilitation/Replacement

4. Asset Management Plan

  • Maintenance Strategies
  • Capital Improvement Plan
  • Funding Alternatives & Strategies

5. Implementation

  • Public Education
  • Culture: Staff & Community Investment
  • Funding: Internal & External Sources
  • Tracking & Reporting: Community Dashboard

Grants Available

The State of Michigan is moving forward with funding of asset management plan development for municipalities through  the Stormwater, Asset Management, and Wastewater (SAW) Grants. Later this summer, MDEQ will accept grant applications for this program, providing up to $2,000,000 in grant funding per municipality. SAW Grants will be awarded on a first–come, first–served basis. For more information about Asset Management Plans and MDEQ SAW Grants, contact Jim Hegarty, P.E.,  Brian Vilmont, P.E. at (616) 364–8491, or Barbara Marczack, P.E. at (231) 798-0101.

There’s a growing fear that the Great Lakes water is in danger, and that we need to work quickly to keep people from trying to steal it – or worse, sell and profit from it. Fortunately, this fear is unfounded, based largely on myths about current laws and practices.

Five Myths Great Lakes Water


Myth #1 – We are using too much of the Great Lakes’ water.

On an average day, 150 billion gallons of water arrive in Michigan through rain and snow, and we only use 6.7% of it. The rest stays in our groundwater, lakes, and streams until it evaporates or flows out to the Atlantic Ocean.

Most of the 10 billion gallons that Michigan communities and businesses do use every day goes right back into the water cycle. About 80% is used as cooling water in thermoelectric power plants and released back into the Great Lakes. The remaining 20% is used for public and private drinking water supply, farming, and manufacturing – after which it passes through our drainage or wastewater systems and re-enters Michigan’s lakes and streams.

Myth #2 – Drier areas of the country want to take our water.

Many people are worried about diversions – transporting the Great Lakes water to somewhere outside the Great Lakes watershed. Not only would a large diversion to the Southwest be ridiculously expensive, but there are already legal ways to prevent it. The Water Resources Development Act (passed by Congress in 1986) gives the governor of any Great Lakes state the right to veto any diversion. Moreover, leaders from the Great Lakes Basin states and provinces worked together to create the Great Lakes Charter – an agreement to minimize pollution and prevent diversions. Diversions to the thirsty southwest are not a threat.

Myth #3 – Bottled water companies are a threat to the Great Lakes.

The idea of bottled water companies selling “our” water makes a lot of people anxious, but we have to remember two things. First, hundreds of companies across Michigan already send water out of the Great Lakes Basin in the form of canned goods, processed food, and drinks. These companies have been sending our water all over the world for decades. Our economy has grown, and our environment hasn’t suffered for it. If this water use doesn’t concern us, why should bottled water?

Second, before we worry that bottled water companies will take “too much” water, we need to understand what “too much” means. Any time a company wants to draw significant amounts of water, studies should be performed to determine how much water goes in, how much will be taken out, and if the source can sustain the demands. That’s called sustainability – responsible water use that doesn’t dry up or damage wells, streams, and other sources. The emphasis should be on sustainability (using the right amount) not conservation (using less).

Myth #4 – We can protect the Great Lakes by enacting laws that restrict water use.

A set of bills regulating water use recently passed in Michigan, requiring communities to get DEQ approval before updating their water systems, and requiring businesses to obtain permits and file annual reports if they use significant amounts of water. In addition, a proposed Annex to the Great Lakes Charter requires all Great Lakes states to inventory and regulate their water withdrawals and set conservation goals. And recently, there has been a proposal to prohibit the sale of bottled water outside of the Great Lakes Basin.

These requirements may seem small, yet they have a large – and mostly negative – influence. First, they emphasize conservation, not sustainability. Implying that people should use less water is simplistic, and it’s not feasible if our communities and businesses are to continue to grow.

Second, when communities need permission to grow, they have to spend more time and money to make simple, necessary improvements. When businesses have to jump through expensive hoops (apply for permits, hire consultants to conduct tests, etc.) before they can expand and bring jobs to the state, they might decide to build elsewhere.

Michigan will continue to grow, and we should focus on using water wisely to our economic advantage. Sustainability is the key.

I think we should recruit more bottled water plants. They would bring jobs and tax money toMichigan– just the thing we’re trying to promote. After all, our most abundant resource – the one no one else can match – is fresh water. Let’s help everyone to use it well, rather than stifling our ability to grow.

Myth #5 – The greatest threat to the Great Lakes is over-use.

The greatest threat to the Great Lakes is contamination. We have to start talking about the quality of our water, about soil erosion, toxic waste discharges, and everything that gets through our wastewater system – like microorganisms that are resistant to chlorine, residual chemicals from prescription drugs, and chemicals from our soaps, perfumes, and cosmetics. The EPA is finding all of these in our lakes and streams, and there’s a big concern that these things will end up in our drinking water as well. If we want to protect our water, we should think first about improving its quality, not reducing the quantity that we use.