Virginia Tech project targets old, leaky pipeline system

Five-year, federally funded project will create national water pipeline database

BLACKSBURG, Va. – Many communities across Southwest Virginia are working to address water main breaks and an aging water infrastructure system before problems occur, and work happening at Virginia Tech aims to help those efforts.

"If you can't maintain this infrastructure, we are not going to get good drinking water," said Sunil Sinha, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and director of the Sustainable Water Infrastructure Management, or SWIM, Center at Virginia Tech.

Sinha and students at Virginia Tech are leading a five-year, federally-funded initiative to collect data on the country's water infrastructure. They will use that information to create a national Pipeline Infrastructure Database, called PIPEiD.

"Knowledge is important to share," Sinha said. "Knowledge within the utilities -- what works, what doesn't work."

The goal is to help small and large cities have the information they need to better understand how different pipeline materials perform or when it might be time to replace a pipe. Sinha said this information is critical to maintaining a safe water supply.

"It will affect your quality of life. It will affect the economy of this country. Water is the basic necessity," Sinha said.

Utility companies, such as the Western Virginia Water Authority, are already working with Sinha, and WVWA has a program in place to address infrastructure concerns before they become a problem.

"It's not pleasant when we have water main breaks and we have those quite frequently, but we're trying to minimize that and trying to get ahead of the curve instead of behind it," said Gary Robertson, executive director of water operations with WVWA.

Robertson said January 2018 set a record for water main breaks in a month, with about 156. He said the Water Authority has an aggressive, multimillion-dollar capital program to replace aging infrastructure.

"When we have leaks and pipes break, we're wasting water that could otherwise be used for our consumers," Robertson said. "But more importantly, when one of these water mains break, not only is it a traffic issue, but also it destroys pavement. So the restoration is much more expensive than going in and replacing it before it breaks."    

Sinha said he hopes water utility companies of all sizes participate in the project.

"This project is to help every city, not just big cities but also medium and small," Sinha said.

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