Lana Belcastro, owner of Diana’s Pizza on Pittston Avenue in South Scranton, said she and others have a new appreciation for modern conveniences like running water, thanks to a main break that left her and more than 6,500 other customers without water for four days earlier this year.
Local water utilities spend millions of dollars a year to make sure consumers pay just about a penny a gallon for the water that flows out of their faucets. And much of that money is spent upgrading the system to try to avoid such breaks.
A major rupture a few days before the Super Bowl served as a stark reminder that the 2,000-mile network of water main under the ground in Lackawanna and Luzerne counties is old and fragile. Nearly a quarter of the pipes are older than a century.
Pat Burke, a director of operations for Aqua Pennsylvania, said the utility takes a proactive approach.
“If we know that a pipe is of a certain age and of a material you might expect to see problems, we try to replace it before it becomes an issue,” Burke said.
Sometimes, even with the best planning and projections and due diligence in place, things happen. But pipes fail at time because of old infrastructure, the weather and the number of miles of main buried beneath the streets and sidewalks in Luzerne and Lackawanna counties
The majority of them are owned by the region’s largest water utility, Pennsylvania American Water, which operates from Forest City in the north to Mocanaqua in the south.
Dan Rickard, an engineer and project manager with the company, said the company has made a concerted effort to replace about one percent of its piping annually. That means about 17 miles of water main are replaced each year in the Lackawanna and Luzerne County service territory at a cost of $1 million per mile.
Some of those chosen for replacement are based on complaints from customers about pressure or quality issues. Others are chosen based on age or material. And others are selected because of known problems with leaks or flow issues the company has documented.
While age is a factor, the company is just as likely to replace a pipe from 1997, if it has had issues, as it is to replace one from 1897.
Rickard said mains from the 1800s were made of cast iron pipe and the belief was that they’d last for about 100 years. Today, about two thirds of the Pennsylvania American Water owned pipes still being used are made of cast iron.
Another quarter are ductile iron, which began being heavily used in the 1990s and is the choice of the company today. The remainder of the pipes still in operation are made of plastic or galvanized steel.
By replacing one percent of the mains annually, Rickard said that means every hundred years the entire system is using pipe that’s a no older than 100 years. He said the replacement process will also helps keep main breaks down as newer, ductile iron pipes are less likely to rupture.
“They’ll never go away completely,” Rickard said, but by replacing aging pipes, or those with smaller diameters with larger ones that allow for better flow, they can be kept to a minimum.
Even with that theory, this winter has been a rough one for main breaks.
Typically Pennsylvania American Water sees 30-50 main breaks a year in the greater Scranton/Wilkes-Barre area. That lower number is already being approached and we’re only in the first days of March.
“This year has been worse than others,” Rickard said.
When a section of transmission main travelling six feet under the 500 block of River Street in Scranton in late January ruptured, it marked the worst local break the company’s had in terms of the number of customers impacted in more than a decade.
The 36-inch cast-iron transmission main that cut service to 6,500 customers in portions of Moosic, Taylor and Scranton — including bars, supermarkets and restaurants — had been in place for 106 years and was not on Pennsylvania American Water Co.’s plans for replacement.
Belcastro, the Scranton pizza shop owner, said not only did her business lose water, but since she lives in the same building as her eatery, she had no water at home.
While she noted plenty of good will among residents and business owners, she also saw the end results of days of frustration that losing water led to.
“Some people got testy,” she said. And from a business standpoint, she said she spent lots of money on inventory and advertising for the big game day only to see her fortune float away with the free-flowing water spilling from the broken main.
But once water came back on after four days, she said slowly things returned to normal. It’s an experience she said she hopes to never go through again and a way of living she is glad she doesn’t have to deal with.
“I feel bad for people who lived a long time ago that did not have running water,” Belcastro said.
What caused the rupture might never be known, according to Pennsylvania American Water Co. spokeswoman Susan Turcmanovich. Typically lines breaks are caused by several things, including damage caused by workers involved in an earlier project, or the freeze and thaw notorious in Northeastern Pennsylvania and other colder climates. But often, their cause gets listed as unknown.
“You never know for sure what causes a main break. A hundred years of a frost/thaw cycle is likely a contributing factor in most cases,” Rickard said. “The frost/thaw cycle is brutal.”
He said that from November through March it’s common to have one or two breaks reported each week.
According to Donna Alston, spokeswoman for Aqua Pennsylvania, in the northern and northeast areas of the country where winters are more extreme, cold soils and cold water combine to add stress to pipes, which can — and often do — result in breaks.
“Iron, like all metals, contracts as temperatures drop. This problem is more common when the source water is surface water (rivers and lakes). These waters are significantly affected by air temperature and can drop to near freezing in the winter,” Alston wrote in a blog posted on Aqua Pennsylvania’s website.
“A temperature difference of just 10 degrees in water or air temperatures can cause pipes to contract or expand. Additional stress inside and outside the pipe occurs as temperatures near the freezing point, making the pipe vulnerable to breakage. Water temperature changes more slowly than air temperature changes so the impact of cold water on pipes can cause breakage to take place as many as a couple days after temperatures freeze,” she wrote.
Area water companies try to keep track of the age of pipes, the number of customers using the water that flows through them, any road work set to take place so the company can piggyback on the road project while the asphalt is already being dug up, if those pipes were already listed for potential replacement.
But since so many of the pipes date back so far, most to water companies that no longer exist, it’s not always an easy task.
At one point, each municipality had its own water company or went in with an adjoining town. Then mergers and acquisitions were over the decades before it finally came down to just a handful of utilities operating systems throughout the Lackawanna and Wyoming valleys.
The three primary water companies in the region are Pennsylvania American Water, which has 1,700 miles of pipe in the two adjoining counties, Aqua Pennsylvania, which has 132 miles, and United Water, which has 48 miles. Each tries to replace pipe on a regular basis.
Aqua President Steve Tagert said many of the water systems Aqua purchased, or was asked by the state to take over, were built in the past half century, when plastic piping was the norm. This has meant a higher number newer pipes needing replacement because plastic doesn’t last as long as iron, and usually the pipe circumference isn’t as wide.
Many plastic pipes are two inches around, while the iron pipes that are installed to replace them are eight inches.
This year, Aqua is replacing 27,679 feet of main in Luzerne County at a cost of $4.1 million. Much of it is from the 1960s except for a system in Harveys Lake from the early 20th century.
Bob Manbeck, spokesman for United Water, which serves 3,300 customers in portions of the Back Mountain, said United “maintains an ongoing infrastructure replacement program throughout the 12 water systems served in eight counties that is based on established engineering criteria.
The criteria, he said, prioritize replacement of aging mains where breaks have occurred. Nearly all water main replacement projects involve replacing smaller diameter mains with larger diameter mains to assure higher flows.”
In the first two months of this year, United has reported 22 main breaks in Luzerne County — 20 of them in February alone.
Even though it’s the smallest of the three key water utilities operating in Luzerne County, United Water Pennsylvania still plans to invest more than $1.7 million to replace various infrastructure throughout the county this year, Manbeck said.