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Charlottesville Slowly Working to Replace Aging Water Infrastructure

Posted: Updated: May 28, 2018 11:34 AM
Water pipes for Charlottesville Water pipes for Charlottesville
Jason McIlwee Jason McIlwee
Lauren Hildebrand Lauren Hildebrand
Mike Johnson Mike Johnson
CHARLOTTESVILLE, Va. (WVIR) -

More than 180 miles of underground pipe make up the drinking water system in the City of Charlottesville, and it all needs to be replaced.

The aged and dated materials of the system are part of the reason people in the city dealt with dozens of flooded roadways and broken water service this past winter.

The department needs to replace the pipes without breaking the bank in the process.

This is important because the potable water system not only carries drinkable water and irrigation to the city, it is also what's used in emergency response situations.

“This winter was pretty rough. We did have a lot of breaks, I believe we've had nine in 24 hours,” said utilities engineer Jason McIlwee.

This winter brought an unusually high number of water main breaks in Charlottesville neighborhoods.

“We do have some older infrastructure,” said utilities director Lauren Hildebrand.

Most of Charlottesville's pipes are 50 to 80 years old. Those pipes now have to carry water to 1,100 fire hydrants, and service close to 15,000 customers around the clock.

The pipes are made of cast iron, which is brittle and breaks when bent.

“A lot of the breaks come from the ground shifting. From the freeze-thaw effect,” McIlwee said.

Causing expensive, and frequent repairs.

“Cities across America struggle with how to balance the replacement with the money they have available,” said Hildebrand.

The new industry standard is a ductile iron, which doesn't require maintenance.

“Every 10 minutes a fire doubles in size,” said Charlottesville Fire Battalion Chief Mike Johnson.

Johnson says it's rare, but life-threatening when firefighters come across a fire hydrant without water: “Certainly, not having water to put on a fire is probably a detrimental situation for us. Water is a cheap and abundantly available resources that works very well for our activities.”

They usually know before it's a danger.

“We inspect hydrants twice a year. We actually physically touch hydrant twice a year,” Johnson said.

In 2010, the city started an aggressive pipe replacement program to address issues with water to fire hydrants coming from old pipes that are too small.

“The 2 inch mains are typically too small. We can't provide fire fluid through those lines, so we look at upsizing those to provide fire fluid through those,” said Johnson.

But the city admits the process is slow between trying to repair emergency breaks and working through scheduled pipe replacements.

“Out of the 180 miles of waterline, we've replaced about 12 miles over the past eight years. We average about 2 miles per year,” said McIlwee.

Every June, Charlottesville City Council approves utility billing rates to fund projects including this massive pipe replacement effort.