What Causes Pipeline Damage?

August 30, 2022
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Not far below the surface of our cities and neighborhoods, 2.2 million* miles of pipes carry safe, clean water to U.S. homes and businesses, about 39 billion* gallons a day. Sometime later, another 1.3 million* miles of sewage pipes carry away the waste. Throughout the world, millions of miles more. All of this makes understanding the causes of pipeline damage in order to prevent it a high priority for businesses and government agencies. 

Unfortunately, even when the causes are well understood, pipeline damage is inevitable. At which point, given the vast extent of underground systems, the critical role they play, and the negative impact of breaches,  a fast, efficient method to locate and assess pipeline damage before complete failure occurs is an even higher priority.

Underground water and waste systems are composed of a variety of materials, and none are impervious to pipeline damage. Metal pipes include cast and ductile iron, galvanized steel, and copper. Non-metal pipes may be vitrified clay (clay and shale blended at high temperatures) or reinforced concrete.  Plastics like PVC (polyvinyl chloride), HDPE (high-density polyethylene), and fiberglass are also used.**

How to Know Your Pipes are Damaged and Need to Be Replaced

Until recently, the methods for assessing pipeline damage had evolved quite slowly. Even newer methods were restrained by their very limited range and the inefficiency of only being able to assess small areas of pipes at once. (Los Angeles, for example, has 6,700*** miles of water pipes and 9,500**** miles of sewer pipes.) In the last few years, however, newer technologies to assess pipeline damage without these limitations have emerged.  

Traditional Pipeline Damage Assessment Methods

Pipeline assessments long in use include digging and visual inspection, ground penetrating radar, acoustic listening devices, and closed circuit cameras.  Historical information such as age, material, soil conditions, and maintenance records are also considered.

But when you think about the thousands of miles of pipes that serve an average city, these methods all share the same limitations. One complication is that not all methods work on all pipe materials. They are also intended to examine a limited length of a specific pipe, not an entire system. And without additional information, they don’t know which pipes to examine until significant problems, including catastrophic failure, alert them. 

This makes most traditional methods either too expensive or too complicated to proactively and regularly assess an entire system for pipeline damage.

Satellite-based Pipeline Damage Assessment

The newest addition to the range of pipeline damage assessment technology uses data gathered by satellite-based radar during repeated orbital passes. Algorithmic analysis of the data indicates where pipeline damage or deficiency is most acute relative to the system. This system, marketed by ASTERRA as MasterPlan, is a genuine paradigm shift in the way pipeline damage is assessed. 

Satellite observation and analysis can proactively assess an entire system for pipeline damage or deficiency with several satellite passes over a period of a few months. It can also continue to monitor for further changes. Rather than data on just a specific section of pipe, a data layer in their GIS will show the condition of the entire system, with deficiency ratings broken into five levels, “High” indicating the most immediate concerns.

The system is ‘pipe agnostic,’ meaning pipe material doesn’t matter. It’s also non-invasive and requires much less crew and staff support.   

What Damages Pipelines?

The most frequent cause of pipeline damage is humans. Accidents during ground excavation are responsible for over 25%***** of serious pipeline incidents. Another issue is age. The average age of the in-ground pipe system is about 45 years, with some pipes having a century or more of service. During that time, corrosion, incorrect operation, material failure and construction weaknesses, damage from the natural or artificial movement of the surrounding earth, and chemical or electrical properties of the soil are making their contributions to pipeline damage.  

Different Types of Pipeline Damage

Pipeline damage comes in a number of different forms with various ramifications. These may include:

  • Circumferential cracking, as the name implies, is around the circumference, sometimes from the pipe being treated like a beam, without support. It has a major impact on pipeline integrity. 
  • A spiral crack may start as a circumferential crack and then travel around the pipe.
  • Longitudinal cracking runs along the length of the pipe, leading anywhere from seepage to major leaks. The weight of traffic and soil combined with inadequate support are possible causes.
  • A blowout hole occurs when a pipe section fails, causing a sudden, uncontrolled release of water — the gushing water main seen on the news flooding a street, or someplace that can’t be seen, resulting in long-term, large-scale leaks of water or sewage. Age, pressure, and material failure are among the causes.

Other types of pipeline damage include splitting and shearing of bell joints, where the end of one pipe inserts into a wider diameter and joined. Corrosion pitting may result in increasing seepage through pinhole leaks or larger. 

Why You Should Replace Damaged Pipes

All damaged pipelines require attention. Small cracks grow into larger ones, and small leaks grow, too. 

For water utilities, ignoring damaged pipes can lead to significant NRW, or non-revenue water, expensively processed and then lost to leaks in damaged pipes, meaning the water, energy, money (and resulting CO2 emissions) have all been wasted. Blowout failures can deprive homes and businesses of water. Processed water leaked into nature can introduce chlorine to sensitive habitats, imperiling wildlife.

For wastewater utilities, pipeline damage leads to sewage (toxins, pathogens) leaking into the environment. This can mean fines, consent decrees, and negative publicity, in addition to the ecological damage. 

The Role of ASTERRA 

Locating and monitoring pipeline deficiencies and damage have become exponentially more efficient with the advent of satellite-based analysis. 

Please visit ASTERRA’s MasterPlan Pipeline Monitoring & Deficiency Assessment to learn more about how satellite-based monitoring works.


*The American Society of Civil Engineers, 2021 Infrastructure Report Card

** Water World, The Perfect Pipe 

***The Los Angeles Times, L.A.’s aging water pipes; a $1-billion dilemma

****Public Works LA County, Water Resources: Sewer 

*****Pipeline & Hazardous Materials Safety Administration

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