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The impact of aging water infrastructure on businesses

November 9, 2021

For decades, deferred maintenance has strained an already aging and deteriorating water supply infrastructure. In fact, America’s drinking water infrastructure received a C- grade on the American Society of Civil Engineers’ (ASCE) 2021 Report Card, which evaluates a variety of infrastructure categories (e.g., wastewater, hazardous waste, solid waste, stormwater, levees and dams) on a rolling basis. The same systems that supply America’s drinking water also supply our public firefighting hydrants and private sprinkler systems.

To deliver water, America relies on an infrastructure system composed of 2.2 million miles of underground pipes. While effective, this system is old. Many of the pipes used in this system were laid in the early to mid-20th century and have a life span of approximately 75 to 100 years.1 This means that many pipes have already exceeded their life span, making them prone to breaks and leaks.

Many businesses may wonder how potential water supply infrastructure issues affect their operations. In fact, such issues not only have significant economic consequences but can also negatively impact a business’s ability to extinguish fires at its property. This article examines these concepts in greater detail, highlighting actionable steps that organizations can take to identify and respond to water supply concerns.

Why should businesses worry about water supply issues?

For businesses, it’s easy to overlook water system concerns. While organizations of all kinds may experience a water main break at some point, it’s not particularly obvious how water infrastructure issues impact their operations. What’s more, unlike other forms of infrastructure (e.g., electrical systems, roads and bridges), municipal water systems are largely buried underground and out of sight. As such, issues with these systems don’t always grab headlines in the same way that congested roads or collapsed bridges might.

That said, properly functioning water supply systems are a frequently overlooked necessity for businesses. For one, if a water main break occurs due to poorly maintained or deteriorated pipes, businesses can experience significant water damage and business disruptions. This concern is all too common, as — according to the ASCE — there is a water main break every 2 minutes, and an estimated 6 billion gallons of treated water is lost each day in the United States.2

Closeup of waste in old water pipes Clogged debris and corroded

In general, this water loss has created significant economic concerns that have had a ripple effect on businesses and citizens. In 2019, the United States lost an estimated $21.7 million of treated water due to leaks, and the country could lose $48 million by 2039.3

If this weren’t enough cause for alarm, a poor water supply infrastructure directly impacts a business’s ability to fight fires on its property. In the event of a fire, sprinkler systems are key. One estimate suggests that fires in commercial properties cost owners over $2.4 billion per year.4

However, without a healthy, functioning supply of water, even the best systems are rendered ineffective. Put another way, infrastructure issues impede reliable water delivery to sprinkler systems, increasing the potential for property damage in the event of a fire. There’s precedent for this concern: According to data from the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA), water supply and pressure problems contributed to 30% of fire incidents in which a sprinkler system was ineffective in containing a blaze.5

The importance of a functioning water supply was recently emphasized in 2019 when NFPA 13 — the industry benchmark for the design and installation of automatic fire sprinkler systems — was adjusted, moving up the chapter on water supplies (i.e., the chapter that covers how sprinkler systems are supplied) from 24 to 5.

Businesses need to be proactive when it comes to assessing and responding to water supply concerns, so if a fire would start on their property, they would be appropriately prepared.

How businesses can manage water supply concerns

A number of issues can arise in public water systems. Water mains can break, which can lead to partially closed valves or introduce debris into the system and cause blockages. In some cases, local governments will reduce water pressure to save water. Other times, governments will remove entire portions of a water main.

These concerns can potentially affect the quality or supply of water and, subsequently, a business’s sprinkler system. Thankfully, there are several ways to evaluate water supplies and sprinkler systems. It’s worth noting that many of the procedures listed below for assessing a water supply should be attempted only by qualified individuals or groups (e.g., municipalities, Nationwide Loss Control experts and sprinkler contractors):

  • Hydrant flow testing — Also known as fire flow tests, hydrant flow tests measure the real-world pressure and flow of a water system. These tests, which city officials or professional contractors often perform, rely on 3 fire hydrants in a specific area. A pressure gauge is placed on one hydrant to record the static pressure; the other two are opened and residual pressure is measured.
  • Sprinkler system maintenance and testing — It’s important for businesses to keep their sprinkler systems on regular inspection and maintenance schedules. NFPA 25 requires businesses to have qualified professionals routinely inspect their sprinkler systems to ensure that all system components (e.g., valves, pipes and sprinkler heads) are functioning correctly, and it also requires maintenance to be conducted whenever needed. In addition to inspections, this standard also outlines protocols related to testing sprinkler systems for effectiveness through various test scenarios. These tests allow businesses to detect potential system damages or deficiencies and fix them prior to an actual fire. One test of particular importance is the main drain test. These tests are used to identify major reductions in water flow. Click here to review guidance from Nationwide Loss Control Services on main drain tests.
  • Fire pump testing and maintenance — Typically found in high-rise or large buildings, fire pumps help deliver the flow and boost pressure required for a sprinkler system to fight fires effectively. To ensure that fire pumps operate properly when needed, preventive testing and maintenance is a must. Specifically, businesses need to focus on weekly or monthly in-house churn testing and annual contractor fire pump testing. Fire pumps must have an adequate and reliable water supply. This needs to be verified and checked regularly. Fire pump testing and maintenance can be complex. For further guidance, click here, contact your trusted Nationwide Loss Control experts or consult a fire pump contractor.
  • Water supply data — To determine whether the current water supply is adequate, businesses should contact their Loss Control representatives. They are trained and equipped with the tools to help ensure that your sprinkler systems are properly supplied and your business is protected.

Moving forward

While water infrastructure issues will surely be concerns for the foreseeable future, there is some good news: More and more water utility companies are using sensors to monitor water quality, which further aids analysis and improvement of these systems.

As the water supply infrastructure slowly improves, businesses should engage with insurance experts who can help them assess potential exposures and guide them in their risk management approaches. Additionally, if experts discover water supply issues, businesses should voice their concerns to their local municipalities.