Aging, weakening WSSC water pipes get dose of zinc

BETHESDA, Md. — Aging water pipes in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties are not just getting replaced, they are getting upgraded to last longer.

The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission has seen an increase in water main breaks in recent years — nearly 2,000 each year.

In large part, the breaks are because of aging pipes, plus the cold winter weather adding stress to the piping.

The current piping, most of which is iron in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties, has a life span of roughly 50 to 75 years.

Now, WSSC is using zinc-coated iron piping wrapped in a V-Bio Enhanced Polyethylene encasement.

The zinc is designed to corrode faster than the iron, making it dissolve sooner and defer the corrosion of the iron.

The encasement keeps bacteria away from the piping to minimize organic factors that cause corrosion.

“This is really going to get us to 100 years,” Gary Gumm, WSSC’s chief engineer, told WTOP. “At 100 years, we’ll have to replace them less frequently and at $1.6 million a mile for design and construction, replacing less frequently over a long period of time means a whole lot of money saved.”

Gumm said the cost of this new piping is about the same as the old.

It’s a relatively new technology being put to use. Officials said zinc-coated pipes have been used in the Kansas City area, parts of New England and in Europe.

But the zinc coating and anti-bio wrap is a first.

“Zinc coatings have been successfully used in Europe for decades, and now WSSC is the first water utility in the country to make zinc-coated pipe with V-Bio film standard materials,” said Allen H. Cox from the P.E. Ductile Iron Pipes Research Association.

With the longer life span, it is expected that there will be a reduction in water main breaks in D.C.’s Maryland suburbs.

But don’t expect immediate improvements.

About 61 miles of the 5800-mile-long system have been replaced each year, a pace that would see it be completed every 100 years.

Gumm said we should expect to see a continual increase in water main breaks until enough new piping is in the system.

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