One morning, Jack Mulrooney woke up and, as on many mornings, went to make a cup of coffee. He pushed the switch to turn on the coffee pot — but nothing happened.
“I said, ‘What does it take to get a cup of coffee?’” he recalled, lifting up his hands toward the heavens in mock frustration.
“Then what you really think about is, what does it take? You’ve got to get the water, you’ve got to get the electricity to your house — all that infrastructure and all those things have to work for me to make a cup of coffee in the morning.”
Mulrooney, who is president of the Rockville-based Mid-Atlantic Region Environmental Professionals, said many of the things that enable him to have his morning coffee are out of sight and prone to neglect. He said aging infrastructure is a costly problem in Montgomery County and the United States as a whole. Top utility company professionals met at a conference on aging infrastructure presented by MAREP at the Universities at Shady Grove on Oct. 18.
The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which serves much of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, replaced 59.5 miles of water mains in fiscal year 2012, surpassing its goal of 41 miles.
About a quarter of the company’s water mains are still more than 50 years old, however, and replacing them is not cheap. It costs an average of $1.4 million to replace one mile of water main. Riggins said the utility anticipates having to raise rates over the next several years to fund the replacement of aging pipes.
Lyn Riggins, a spokeswoman for WSSC, said the company replaces a certain number of miles of old water mains each year, since old infrastructure leads to more breaks.
“You’re going to get into a situation where the old pipes just aren’t getting repaired, and when that happens, they just continue to break,” she said.
Broken water pipes can block roads and shut down water to homes and businesses, but in some cases, they can be dangerous.
In December 2008, rescue workers used boars and a helicopter to pull stranded motorists to safety after a 66-inch water main broke on River Road in Bethesda. The break shut down the road, closed schools and limited water pressure at hospitals.
WSSC repaired almost 2,100 broken and leaking water mains in 2010. Crews set a new record for the number of repairs in a single month in December 2010, fixing 647 breaks and leaks.
Mulrooney said the American Society of Civil Engineers recently gave the nation an overall grade of D on the condition of its infrastructure.
“Over five years, we’ll need to spend upward of $2.2 trillion to get it up to acceptable standards,” Mulrooney said.
WSSC Spokesman I.J. Hudson said the utility uses an acoustic fiber optic monitoring system and pipe inspections to help detect weaknesses in pipes before they fail, but old infrastructure still causes problems.
“We come to wintertime, and then we get a lot of breaks in some areas,” Hudson said.
Art Shapiro, division chief of Baltimore’s Department of Public Works, said most officials know they should be proactive about maintaining and repairing utilities infrastructure, but they do not always make it a priority when the time comes to cut the check.
“If road rehabilitation or pipe rehabilitation projects are put to the back burner because they are not ‘sexy’ compared to doing a development project, near-term satisfaction can give way to long-term remorse,” he said.
Shapiro, speaking at the infrastructure conference, said water pipes might have a lifetime of 60 to 70 years under perfect conditions although some have been in use for longer.
Cold weather, traffic and earthquakes all put added strain on old pipes that were not made to bend with their surroundings.
Shapiro said that much of America’s infrastructure, especially in urban areas, was built during three different eras using pipes with three different life expectancies.
“What’s happened is that statistically, we are in a perfect storm now,” he said. “Those three eras of infrastructure materials ... are now reaching a useful life profile that is coinciding with each other, and that’s putting a tremendous strain on the horizon in terms of how the utilities around the country are going to be able to respond.”