Multiple factors causing water main breaks

ALPENA – As a rash of water main breaks in Alpena continues, it is clear work needs to be done to improve the current water delivery system in the city. The price tag for the needed work on the piping system alone exceeds $40 million and because of the city’s current economic condition, it is unlikely a complete overhaul will take place any time soon.

The age of the current pipes are not all to blame for the string of leaks over the last several weeks. City Engineer Rich Sullenger said the system’s age, condition of the pipes and the weather all determine when breaks occur. Sullenger said in many cases there is not one clear reason why the pipes are bursting.

“We do have an old infrastructure and I have documented water mains out there from 1905 and they do very well. Those aren’t the ones that are breaking,” Sullenger said. “We also have some pipe that was purchased in the 1950s and 1960s and it seems to be more susceptible to breaking. Some was low priced and some foreign and it has not held up. We know where it is at, but it is not cost effective to replace it, because of the volumes we have in the ground.”

Sullenger said he estimates 40 percent of the city’s water pipes are made from the steel of that era. He said it is not only the type of pipe that factors into the leaks, but the size of the pipes. Sullenger said much of the piping is four inches in diameter or smaller. He said the current standard is about six inches.

“There is a lot of undersized pipe. Four inch water main is substandard. If you put water main in now it is usually six inches, sometimes eight,” Sullenger said. “We have a lot of four inch.”

In a report Sullenger did for Alpena Municipal Council it was estimated to change out the city’s pipes four inches in diameter or smaller it would cost $2.7 million and to swap out the pipe 4-6 inches it would cost $36.2 million. To have water pipes removed it would cost an additional $2.09 million.

“That is not all the pipe that has aged,” Sullenger said. “That is just the undersized piping. Right now what we do is when we do have an issue we do the swap out when we are doing the repairs.”

Sullenger said there has been an increase in the amount of broken water pipes or fittings this winter, but stressed it is not uncommon for pipes to burst when weather temperatures fluxuate up and down greatly.

“Is the amount of breaks uncommon? Not with the weather swings we have seen,” Sullenger said. “Usually spring and fall are the worst, but with the weather we have had this winter it really doesn’t surprise me. I am surprised by some of the locations in which they have occurred though.”

One area that has been a problem this winter has been a stretch of Lockwood Street. Sullenger said the pipes there have really never been an issue, but for some reason it has been a problem area this year.

“Some of these locations we have never had problems before,” Sullenger said. “Sometimes there is just no rhyme or reason why there is a break. I think really there are a lot of variables playing into this. You can’t blame it all on the age of the system.”

Steve Schulwitz can be reached via e-mail at or by phone at 358-5689.