With fourth major break, Philly water mains showing their age

An entire intersection is missing at 21st and Bainbridge in Philadelphia where part of a major water main was blown out almost two weeks ago.


Meanwhile, city officials are investigating the fourth water main break in less than two weeks. With 3,200 miles of water pipes, the Philadelphia Water Department usually has just one big break like this a year.

As department workers repair the damage, they’re trying to figure out what happened on the night that 40 people were forced to evacuate the area.

After the damaged length was removed for a full inspection, the water department’s Joe Hinton climbed into the open ends to assess the area around the break. “Once you get in about 30 feet, it’s very dark,” he said. “You can’t see your hand in front of your face, no more than a couple inches.”

Sifting through all the evidence from this scene could take many weeks — and there are three more such scenes around the city.

Howard Neukrug, the city’s water commissioner, says failures like this one tend to occur in the summer. “People use more water in the summer. People water their lawns. And one of the biggest stresses we’ve seen is (from open) hydrants,” he said.

Neukrug says an open hydrant can contribute to the pressure that will blow out a pipe.

Andrew Stober of the Mayor’s Office of Transportation and Utilities says there’s another factor — Philadelphia’s infrastructure is aging.”Any given piece of pipe could last 200 years, but what we know with all of our infrastructure is that it doesn’t get stronger as it gets older,” he said.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.