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Researcher says 40% of Cleveland water mains more than 100 years old

Posted at 5:38 PM, Nov 30, 2021

CLEVELAND — The ringing of jackhammers and the sight of gushing water coming from the ground have come to symbolize the water main break season in Northeast Ohio where aging infrastructure and cold weather can combine to form a soggy situation.

Experts say when the ground freezes it can increase pressure on water lines causing the kinds of breaks that happened in both the North Collinwood neighborhood and Richmond Heights Tuesday.

"Actually it's not unexpected because it happens again and again," said Bill Yu, Chair of Case Western Reserve University's Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering.

Yu was part of a research team that analyzed 50 years of Cleveland Water's data on water main failures in an effort to better predict when a break may happen.

"When the temperature decreased to a sub-zero degree (Celsius), we see a linear increase in the failure probability," said Yu. "Like three or four times or even more."

Cleveland Water said the transmission line that broke in Richmond Heights has a history of breaks, including another large leak in October 2020 that happened just yards from Tuesday's break.

The water department said the pre-stressed concrete main was installed in 1957.

Yu's research found the 64-year-old water main is nowhere near the oldest in Cleveland Water's infrastructure.

"I would say middle-aged, maybe slightly toward the younger part," said Yu. "Cleveland Water had like 40% of their pipe was 100 years old or older."

Cleveland Water said it spends $25 million a year replacing water mains.

But an overhaul of fewer than 4,000 feet of the line that broke in Richmond Heights is expected to cost $6.5 million.

In all, the water department said it maintains more than 5,300 miles of water mains.

A Cleveland Water spokesperson said the department is waiting for additional details to find out how much of the recently-passed federal infrastructure bill may be available for water main replacement, adding "We'll, of course, take advantage of any available funding."