Utility Service Partners, Inc.

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Is your city a toxic pipe wasteland?

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The water crisis in Flint, Michigan, has put a national spotlight on water infrastructure and the importance of upgrading outdated systems, which includes private lines into homes. With water and sewer lines out of sight and out of mind, it’s not surprising that many homeowners may not even know the composition of their lines or their responsibility.

A 2008 report cited that while the United States was moving away from lead water pipes by the 1920s, the trend was not universal. Municipal plumbing codes continued the approval of lead pipe installation into the 1970s or 80s. Many lead and copper pipes are still in commission today and causing health problems nationwide – especially in older neighborhoods. Most of the time the problems go unnoticed until it’s too late.

Current Utility Service Partners, Inc. partner Madison, Wisconsin, was one of the first cities in the nation to address the infrastructure problem through a cooperative partnership. In addition to replacing the lead service lines for which the city is responsible, the public water utility has also been replacing the homeowner’s portion of the line from the curb stop to the house. Replacing only part of the problem can actually make it worse. When only a portion of the lead line is replaced, loose lead particles remain in the plumbing and continue contamination. The $19 million program is thought to be the first in the nation and a model for other cities, according to the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. While the world watches the crisis in Flint, Michigan, continue to unfold, the importance of aging infrastructure and the need for replacement is front and center.

For homeowners though, the struggle is real when facing a total line replacement. The cost of replacement is upwards of $10 thousand depending on the length and location of the line and if public street or sidewalk cutting is required. Most homeowners don’t have this level of discretionary income and thus opt for filters and temporary fixes – but the problem still exists. When the lines aren’t repaired and are allowed to continue in operation, further infrastructure risks, such as water line breaks, could occur.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) says cities need to reduce lead levels if they exceed 15 parts per billion, but health experts say no lead levels are safe – especially “for children, who are susceptible to learning disabilities and behavior problems” from lead exposure.

As cities across the nation continue to tackle issues related to aging infrastructure, examples of programs like those implemented by Madison, Wisconsin, can be a model. “We look back and know we made the right decision,” said city water quality manager Joe Grande. “We’re not in a situation like Flint today because we made those decisions years ago.”


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Different Location, Same Problem

Repair the broken pipe with replace new

Repair the broken pipe with replace new

The same headlines appear around North America every day.

No water, school in area of Norton Shores due to water main break

Traffic alert: Water main break leads to road closings, icy spots”

Water main break causes street collapse, cars flooded in Rhawnhurst

This list could go on for days. While the cities and street names may change, several factors are always the same:

  • Water is lost
  • Residents are inconvenienced and angry
  • A hefty repair bill will be in order

We read about these problems every day in the news. They shut down roads, close businesses and schools and force homeowners to wait for a precious resource they need to survive. Additionally, the water loss creates sinkholes, potholes, and damage to public and private property. Simply put – it’s a nightmare.

Our nation’s infrastructure is in dire need of repairs and it’s no secret. Last week, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) announced they are investing more than $182 million for drinking water and wastewater projects in California – one of the states most heavily impacted by the continued drought.

“This substantial investment at the federal level helps communities like Carlsbad provide sustainable sources of water in the face of California’s historic drought,” said U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s Regional Administrator Jared Blumenfeld in a press release. “EPA is committed to protecting the state’s water resources so critical to our environment, public health and economy.”

Of course, cities aren’t the only ones facing these problems. Aging infrastructure isn’t limited to just city mains – it happens to homeowners too. Unlike cities, homeowners don’t have taxpayer dollars and a repair fund to cover the costs. It comes out of their own budget.

“Most people take for granted the drinking water coming out of their faucets and the drains that take the dirty water away until a stoppage happens, then it hits home how important a working drain and sewer system is to them,” said David Dertz of Aquaflow Plumbing, one of USP’s contractors. “Almost everyone has lost power at some point in their life and it’s an inconvenience. When a water line breaks or a sewer backs up into the home, they just do not know who to call to take care of the problem.”

Our water and sewer lines are more than just things in the ground – they are important parts of life. As the pipes continue to age, failure is inevitable. Investing in your infrastructure today – both public and private – can eliminate another headline for your city and a hefty repair bill for your citizens.