Utility Service Partners, Inc.

Sharing industry news, best practices and program highlights from experts in the field.

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Three Environmental Factors that Cause Service Lines to Fail

Are your residents aware of their responsibility to maintain their water and sewer service lines?

In the State of the Home Winter 2018 survey, 13 percent of respondents thought service lines are the responsibility of the municipality or utility, and 18 percent didn’t know who was responsible. Additionally, 11 percent thought their homeowners’ insurance would cover it. That means one-third either don’t know who is responsible or think the responsibility lies with their service provider, and more than 40 percent are not prepared for a break.

As unprepared as they are, they likely don’t know the three environmental factors that lead to plumbing failures: roots, cold and ground settling.


Sewer service lines are an especially tempting target for tree roots, since they’re a source of water, nutrients and oxygen the tree needs. Once a root has found a crack or loose joint, it will grow into the pipe, destroying it as it goes. During a drought, the water and nutrients in the sewer service line are an even bigger target. Tree roots generally extend up to two or three times the height of the tree, but can extend as far as seven times the height.

When roots worm their way in, their growth causes pressure at the crack or joint where they found their way in, worsening it. Clay and cast iron are particularly prone to root invasion, because their joints are loose-fitting and an easy target for roots. Most modern sewer lines are made of plastic pipes, which are more resilient, but there are still millions of homes that have older style sewer service lines – and they are reaching the end of their usable lifespans, roots or not.

Roots don’t need to destroy a sewer line to cause issues – as the root mass invades the pipe, growing larger, the mass itself will begin clogging the pipe, leading to slow-flowing drains and overflowing, neither of which are pleasant prospects for residents.

With most root intrusions, the first line of defense is using a plumbing auger, or “snake,” to clean out the line, using a bladed cutting tool on the end to power through roots and debris in the line, followed by root killer to discourage – but not entirely stop – future growth. However, some older lines, especially corrugated iron, have such thin walls that the cutting tool can damage them.

If a line is beyond what can be mediated with an auger, a plumber can line it with a plastic-and-cement sleeve or, in a worst-case scenario, dig a trench and replace the failed section of the line. This is the worst-case scenario, because it’s the most expensive, costing thousands of dollars.


Frozen water pipes impact a quarter million households each winter, and, while service lines are buried safely below the frost line, interior plumbing isn’t. If that plumbing is poorly insulated and exposed to quick drops in temperature, it can freeze.

Even a small crack in a pipe can lose hundreds of gallons of water a day, flooding a home and exposing it to structural damage and mold.

Surprisingly enough, it’s the warmer, southern states where homeowners are more vulnerable to frozen pipes. The reason is simple – northern home builders account for cold weather and insulate pipes and don’t put them in the danger areas, such as crawl spaces, outer walls, attics and garages. In addition, southern homeowners are less likely to be on guard for freezing pipes.

Pipes running through uninsulated spaces isn’t solely a southern problem – older homes in the north also may have issues with uninsulated pipes, and 37 percent of all pipe breaks occur in basements, a feature more likely to be found on the east coast. Whatever region a home is in, plumbers agree that 20 degrees Fahrenheit is the magic number for water line breaks caused by cold. It rarely gets so cold in the south, but when it does, those uninsulated pipes are in danger of freezing.

When the water in a pipe freezes, it expands, but this usually isn’t enough to cause a pipe to break – it’s the downstream pressure that now has no release, because of the ice blockage. This is why plumbers recommend opening all your interior taps – outdoor taps should have the water turned off – if you feel your pipes are in danger of freezing, because it reduces the pressure on your pipes.

In addition, homeowners can buy insulation sleeves that slip over their pipes to protect them. Anyone who is concerned about possible breaks can purchase sleeves at their local hardware store – they are much less expensive than the average $5,000 cost for interior plumbing breaks.

Ground settling

Pipes settle – a series of rain, freezing and thawing will cause ground movement and cause the pipes to move.

Most of the time, pipes should be fine, but older pipes can begin to leak at the joints and fittings. This will either attract roots, or, if it is a sewer line, soil from around the pipe can be washed into it, then into the sewer main, causing blockages and also a void around the pipe that can cause it to bow. If a sewer line begins sagging, it will trap water and debris in the sagging portion, and the debris will harden until it causes a blockage.

If water or sewage leaks into the soil surrounding the pipe, it can exacerbate the freeze-thaw cycle, causing increasing damage, and attract roots, which, as noted, are bad for pipes.

All underground pipes will be subject to shear forces, bending moments, curvatures and joint rotations caused by settling, but the ability to withstand it differs across types of pipe. Most homeowners won’t know there’s an issue until there’s a problem, and that’s often too late.

In the State of the Home survey, nearly 90 percent of respondents said municipalities should educate their residents about their service line responsibilities. At no cost to your municipality, you can offer protection to your residents and educate them not only on their service line responsibilities, but on a host of other plumbing issues through a partnership with the NLC Service Line Warranty Program. Municipalities may also receive royalties from the program. For more information visit Utility Service Partners, a HomeServe company.

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Conservation: Partnering With Ratepayers to Reduce Costs

Potable water is valuable and requires time, labor and resources to produce and deliver to ratepayers, and water utilities are expected to maintain a constant, clean supply with aging infrastructure and rates that are less than ideal. We’ve looked at recouping costs through reducing loss and theft, but you also can partner with ratepayers to further reduce costs.

When you’ve done all you can to shrink loss and theft, water conservation is another cost-cutting tool. Conservation isn’t just for customers – it’s up to community leaders to show the way. Use of low-flow fixtures, WaterSense-rated appliances, aerators and native plants in your home and yard is a great way to show that you take conservation seriously.

Low-flow fixtures will pay for themselves in water savings, and some, such as aerators, are easy to install on most taps and significantly reduce usage. It’s estimated that aerators will pay for themselves within a year with saved water costs – sinks and showers account for a large part of a home’s daily water usage. The Environmental Protection Agency estimated that switching to low-flow appliances would save an average of $380 annually in water costs. Even more impressive, it can help reduce water usage by 20 percent. Those installing efficient appliances won’t only save on their water bill – they also will save on energy costs and extend the life of their water heaters.

Water also can be conserved outdoors by using native plants and landscaping that requires minimal watering. Native plants are much more likely to thrive in your lawn, saving water and worry, while providing natural beauty. They also reduce erosion and improve the soil, while reducing the amount of storm water runoff and fertilizers and pesticides used. Their deeper roots help retain and filter water, conserving and cleaning the water before it reaches natural bodies of water. Mulching also can help conserve water – it retains soil moisture and reduces the amount of watering plants need.

Engage with the public and find champions – like-minded people who will help spread the message and provide them with resources to share with family and friends. Educate customers about the cost savings to them and simple, entry-level conservation habits they can adopt before challenging them to think bigger. You may want to choose monthly educational focuses by sharing information in newsletters, holding workshops, defraying costs for low-flow fixtures or providing volunteer work crews to help with installing low-flow fixtures and aerators.

You also can see results with a tool you may have overlooked – water bills. In Belen, Costa Rica, for example, utilities have seen success in encouraging conservation by using social norms and noting the difference between customers’ water bills and those of their neighbors with a smiley face if consumption was less and a frowny face if it was more. Smart billing also can show customers their consumption, including when they use the most and least amount of water and how much money they save with conservation measures and efficient appliances and fixtures. Some utilities have seen success by including conservation planning worksheets with bills, and the EPA provides tips for consumers to understand their water bills.

Encouraging water conservation isn’t only good for your system, but for your ratepayers, and the better you’re able to communicate that, the sooner you’ll see results.

The NLC Service Line Warranty Program, administered by Utility Service Partners, a HomeServe company, partners with municipalities and utilities to provide service line repair plans to homeowners. Customers with a repair plan are more likely to have a leak fixed more quickly, thereby wasting less water. Through this program, a customer simply makes one phone call to our toll free number 24/7/376 to have a local, insured and licensed plumber promptly dispatched. For more information, please contact us.