Virginia Tech is leading a five-year U.S. Bureau of Reclamation-funded effort to collect data on the reliability of the nation's aging water pipelines and then to establish an infrastructure database for resilient and sustainable water systems.

Infrastructure problems, drought, flooding, and population growth have left regions across the nation facing water-related challenges. Infrastructure systems have been neglected and are failing at unacceptable rates as demands on them increase.

Results of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency survey show that $384 billion in improvements are needed for the nation’s drinking water infrastructure and $271 billion to maintain and improve the nation’s wastewater infrastructure systems.

Drinking water is delivered through 1 million miles of pipes, with many of those pipes dating to the early to mid-20th century with a lifespan of 75 to 100 years. The quality of drinking water in the United States remains high, but legacy and emerging contaminants continue to require close attention.

According to the American Society of Civil Engineers, there are an estimated 240,000 water main breaks per year in the United States, wasting more than 2 trillion gallons of treated drinking water. Coping with the water crisis could be greatly enhanced by smart water pipeline infrastructure networks.

To answer this challenge, Virginia Tech researchers will collect high-quality field performance data on reliability for water pipelines of different materials, including cast iron, ductile iron, reinforced concrete, steel, lead, plastic, thermoplastic, and others. This study will include analyses of the economics, cost-effectiveness, and life-cycle costs associated with the various water pipe materials under evaluation.

Sunil Sinha, professor in the Charles E. Via Jr. Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering in the College of Engineering, will work to develop a national database, named PIPEiD, otherwise known as Pipeline Infrastructure Database, that will efficiently and securely store the collected data.

The infrastructure database will enable users to conduct performance and life-cycle economic analyses of water pipeline infrastructure systems. Additionally, the database will help advance understanding of water pipeline performance and the development of digital models and tools for resiliency and sustainability that will benefit asset management practitioners and the workforce to aid in better decision making.

The database will also enable the bureau to affordably develop and implement robust decision-support systems to understand the condition and failure risk profiles of water pipeline infrastructure systems and to predict life-cycle management needs.

Sunil Sinha (center) and Virginia Tech students will work to develop a national database, named PIPEiD, otherwise known as Pipeline Infrastructure Database, that will be capable of efficiently and securely storing the collected data on reliability for water pipelines of different materials.

Sunil Sinha and students
Sunil Sinha (center) and Virginia Tech students will work to develop a national database, named PIPEiD, otherwise known as Pipeline Infrastructure Database that will be capable of efficiently and securely storing the collected data on reliability for water pipelines of different materials, including cast iron, ductile iron, reinforced concrete, steel, lead, plastic, thermoplastic, and others.

“How a nation operates, retrofits, and expands its pipeline infrastructure networks will help determine the quality of life for future generations and that nation’s competitiveness in the global economy,” said Sinha, a National Science Foundation CAREER Award recipient whose grant work focused on sustainable water infrastructure management systems. “In order to meet the important challenges of the 21st century, a new paradigm for the planning, design, construction, and management of water pipeline infrastructure is required, one that addresses the conflicting goals of diverse economic, environmental, and societal interests.”

The key to implementing asset management is to have a comprehensive, standardized, and centralized data platform, such as PIPEiD, to enable enhanced insights of the characteristics directly affecting pipeline life cycle performance. Currently, water utilities are hindered in their water pipeline asset management by the lack of sufficient data to accurately predict life cycle variables. Many water utilities believe that they don’t have the capability to conduct accurate, robust, and reliable performance analyses.

“The PIPEiD project will not only help the bureau, but all water utilities across the country to maintain sustainability and resiliency of water pipelines,” said Lee Sears, a materials engineer who works in the Corrosion and Coatings Laboratory at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation-Denver and is the project manager.

The pipeline infrastructure database will be maintained and updated by Virginia Tech’s ICTAS Center of Excellence in Sustainable Water Infrastructure Management. Sinha currently serves as the director of the center.

“While there is currently no centralized database and modeling platform for water pipelines that will meet every need for every user, there is scientific basis and strength in pursuing complementary efforts while evolving to a more integrated, centralized platform of capabilities where the whole is more than the sum of the parts” said Sinha. “New, transformative capabilities will continue to emerge that assist water utilities to sustain targeted levels of service with acceptable risk for pipeline infrastructure systems.”