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Managing High Risk Aging Pipelines

Pipeline operators from around the world are discovering that simply replacing their aging pipeline assets is cost prohibitive and that advanced condition assessment services from Pure can help them confidently make informed decisions that drastically reduce capital and operating costs.

There are many ways in which a pipeline can deteriorate to a state of failure; countless sources of stress both inside and outside the pipe can take their toll.

Single-step blowouts of pipe walls are quite rare; pinhole leaks, hairline cracks, corrosion and leaking gaskets tend to occur first. Most catastrophic failures are caused by a sudden unexpected stress such as a water hammer acting on an existing weak point in the pipe. There is a widely held belief that the failure process is a simple one, where a pipe corrodes to the point at which it can no longer withstand the applied internal and external forces, resulting in a main break. However, research has shown that the failure process is more complex than expected. Corrosion plays a significant role in water main failures, but soil-pipe interactions, manufacturing techniques and human error are also important factors. Failures also take place in multiple stages rather than in a single episode. Early damage not only weakens portions of the pipe, it also allows water to escape, causing corrosion and washing out of the supporting soil.

Pipes at highest risk are typically constructed using dated materials or methods, running through an area with heavily vehicle traffic. Urban centers typically represent significant loss potential from damage caused by water main breaks as a result of high density buildings, underground infrastructure, important traffic thoroughfares, and economic loss potential of power, gas, water utilities and legal cases.

Older pipes that face stresses such as heavy traffic, construction activity, pressure transients or advanced age are more likely to fail. However there are other factors at work such as installation or material defects that may surface over a shorter period of time. The net result is that age alone can not be relied on as an indicator of a high risk pipe.

Types of pipe material and typical causes of failure:

Prestressed Concrete Cylinder Pipe (PCCP) has a unique failure mechanism: high strength steel pre-stressing wires that provide strength to the pipe can become distressed and reduce the structural integrity of the pipe. Broken wires can be caused by physical damage to the pipe, corrosion, or hydrogen embrittlement. Regions of broken wires may be accompanied by leaks, especially in pipelines smaller than 48 inches in diameter, where the internal steel cylinder corrodes at the same rate as the wires or where water escaping through the joint encourages corrosion. Leakage has been proven to be a key indicator of structural condition in lined cylinder pipe, a type of PCCP in which the prestressing wires are placed directly on the steel cylinder. These types of leaks can create voids around the pipe and introduce added stress at an existing weak point.

Corroded Wires, Embrittled Wires, Cylinder Perforation

Cast iron pipes corrode, become brittle and are prone to cracking. Many older North American cities have cast iron pipes that were installed in the 1800s, prior to the existence of pipeline standards, when methods of construction were not uniform and advanced quality control programs did not exist. Consequently, many pipelines were installed using what are considered poor construction practices by today’s standards.

Tuberculation, Bell Cracking, Longitudinal Cracking, Corrosion

Ductile iron pipes have failure mechanisms similar to those of cast iron pipes; however they become less brittle and consequently degrade at a slower rate. These pipes may be capable of supporting large leaks for longer periods of time without failing immediately.

Plastic and polyvinyl chloride (PVC) pipes are less prone to corrosion and less brittle than iron pipes. Failures in these pipes are often traced to leaking joints where the escaping water creates voids around the pipeline, causing unplanned stresses on the pipe.

Leadite is a sulphur-based joint-sealing compound commonly used in the 1940s and 1950s that appears to produce pipe failures due to the difference between its coefficient of thermal expansion and that of the metal in the pipes it seals. Leadite in pipe joints expands at a different rate than the pipe itself, causing added stress near the joints. This undesirable behaviour has resulted in particularly destructive joint ruptures on otherwise strong iron pipes.

Steel pipes primarily fail due to loss of integrity at welds, and external corrosion causing severe pitting and weakening the pipe wall. Both losses of joint integrity and through-wall corrosion pits lead to leakage long before failure. Older steel pipes in aggressive environments are capable of sustaining massive levels of leakage for decades before failing.