Engineers Establish Center of Excellence in Sustainable Water Infrastructure Management

A few years ago, America's drinking water and collection system earned a "D" on its report card, as issued by the American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE).

Marc Edwards, the Charles P. Lunsford Professor in civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech and a MacArthur Fellow, has achieved international renown for applying the principles of aquatic chemistry to solving problems related to corrosion and drinking water infrastructure degradation. Virginia Tech Photo

With that "D" came an estimated five-year investment in excess of $1.3 trillion needed to repair the drinking water and collection systems owned by U.S. municipalities.

Most of the water infrastructure systems are over 100 years old, and many "have not received adequate upgrades, maintenance, repair and rehabilitation over time," said Sunil Sinha, a 2007 National Science Foundation (NSF) CAREER Award recipient and an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering (CEE) at Virginia Tech.

Sinha and Marc Edwards, who holds CEE's Charles P. Lunsford Professorship of CEE and who received an NSF Presidential Faculty Fellowship, have teamed to establish the Virginia Tech Institute for Critical Technology and Applied Science (ICTAS) Center of Excellence (ICE) in Sustainable Water Infrastructure Management (SWIM).

"Today, municipal governments are facing an infrastructure crisis requiring costly renewal beyond their capacity," Sinha said. "There has been a steady decline in the state of our water infrastructure over the past two decades and a growing concern is that these facilities may be inadequate both for current requirements and projected future growth, according to Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) statistics."

Funding for these municipal needs is limited, and a "deferred maintenance, out-of-sight, out-of-mind philosophy still prevails in many regions," Sinha added. Outdated, but most recent ASCE estimates from 2000 on the cost of replacing all potable water mains in the United States at $348 billion.

Also, "the net present replacement value of water infrastructure in homes and buildings is on the order of a trillion dollars," according to Edwards. "In the last few years, many consumers have been startled to discover that the utilities and health agencies have been assuming that the consumer is completely responsible for complex decisions regarding materials selection, maintenance and replacement, often without any sound research guidance or public outreach."

Several examples of water quality problems have appeared in the popular press and on the evening news. For instance, Edwards' research team discovered that EPA regulations encouraging chloramine use in drinking water inadvertently triggered problems with lead leaching from home plumbing in Washington D.C. Other work he led examined plumbing devices installed in homes, certified as "safe" in the marketplace, but which leached harmful amounts of lead to drinking water when installed in practice. Several subsequent congressional investigations examined flaws in the system that could cause such troubling outcomes, and Edwards was called to Washington D.C. to serve as one of the expert witnesses.

He also examined outbreaks of pinhole leaks in copper tubing in many regions of the United States, which have cost consumers billions of dollars, and discovered that a key contributing factor was changes in water chemistry resulting from EPA regulations. The moisture from these leaky pipes contributed to mold growth in homes, which in turn contributed to billions of dollars of losses in the home insurance sector, sky-rocketing premiums or cancelled insurance, and "as is" home sales.

Edwards and Sinha have also learned that well-intentioned home housing trends are causing potentially serious problems with bacterial growth. Specifically, the temperature in new water heaters is often too low to kill harmful micro-organisms, including legionella, mycrobacterium avium and pseudomonads. The maximum temperature is often limited to prevent scalding of young children and to save energy, yet this temperature is not high enough to kill the microorganisms. Likewise, new plumbing construction with water saving devices means that water is sitting in home plumbing longer, which can also contribute to the bacteria problem.

In some cases residents using this water for showering complained of breathing difficulties, rashes, dizziness and other maladies, although no definitive links between the bacteria and these problems has yet been established. But testing did reveal "very worrisome levels of indicator micro-organisms and positive detection of pathogens including mycobacterium and pseudomonas, organisms that can cause a form of tuberculosis in residents breathing in their shower, or severe skin rashes," Edwards asserts. An analogy would be with the use of hot tubs that are poorly maintained, in which some patrons obtain "hot tub rash" and "hot tub lung" due to the same microorganisms.

ICE¬–SWIM will focus its research on the sustainable water infrastructure management systems. This includes a multiple number of areas such as water chemistry, sensor technology, nanotechnology, information technology, material science, construction technology, green engineering, sustainable and innovative technologies, renewal engineering, and infrastructure asset management.

Edwards, dubbed the "Plumbing Professor" by Time magazine for his internationally recognized expertise on drinking water, concentrates in environmental and water resources engineering. Sinha, who specializes in construction engineering and management, used his NSF CAREER award for research in the area of sustainable water infrastructure management system. Sinha is in the process of developing a sustainable water infrastructure management system.

Currently, Sinha has several ongoing research projects, funded by the EPA, WERF, and AWWARF and all related to the water infrastructure system. He is also working closely with international research institutions working in the areas of water infrastructure such as CSIRO, Australia, University of Birmingham, U.K., and SINTEF, Norway. His research includes the development of an integrated water and wastewater pipe management system with recent sensor technologies and non-destructive testing tools. This research has the potential to change the utilities' ability to rate the condition and performance of its pipeline infrastructure system and to develop a rational repair, rehabilitation and replacement program.

Together, they will be able to lead the ICE–SWIM center's efforts to develop new generations of installation, repair and rehabilitation systems; new sensors to track obstacles and deterioration of water systems; advanced, integrated asset management approaches; and educate a new breed of engineers for research and application of new technologies. Edwards will act as the first director, and Sinha will be the co-director.

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