An aging water main burst recently in downtown Farmington and caused flooding that temporarily closed two businesses, highlighting the constant struggle utility officials face to upgrade municipal water systems.

The pipe that burst was at least 60 years old and among the handful of water lines in town that had not been replaced in a major overhaul of the system in 1987, according to Farmington Village Corp., the utility company.

But utility officials from other communities explained the pipe’s age was not excessive compared to their systems, which have seen their own share of major main breaks during the harsh Maine winters.

Tom Holt, superintendent of the company in Farmington, said last week the Jan. 14 flooding on Main Street is still being investigated by the utility to determine what caused the pipe to fail.

“It comes with the territory,” Holt said, referring to the many uncontrollable factors that cause main breaks.

Early that Saturday morning, a water pipe that supplies the TD Bank branch started leaking. The water flooded into the bank’s basement and spilled over into the main lobby, reaching about 2 feet in the street-level space.

A massive cleanup at the bank had the branch open again later that week, along with the other business that suffered some of the worst flooding from the break.

John Anderson, who owns Trask Jewelers Inc., lost pretty much everything in his store’s basement, destroyed by the nearly 6 feet of water that flooded into the building.

Despite the utility company in Farmington investing money every year into maintaining its system, breaks can still happen there like anywhere else, Holt said.

The company serves about 1,600 customers and has done extensive work to upgrade the entire system, he said.

The overhaul of the system in 1987 replaced many older pipes, with the utility partnering with the town government on a $2.15 million infrastructure project, Holt said.

The utility received $200,000 from a federal grant and invested $46,000 of its own funds to pay for the water system upgrades, he said.

‘A chain reaction of problems’

The Kennebec Water District serves about 8,800 customers in Benton, Fairfield, Vassalboro, Waterville and Winslow.

With 170 miles of water pipes in a system installed in 1899, the district looks at a number of issues when deciding how to invest in upgrades, repairs and other maintenance projects, according to Jeff LaCasse, general manager of the district.

The district has a capital improvement plan that spends an average of about $450,000 per year on projects, which are rotated among the communities based on priority, he said.

LaCasse gave a $300,000 project last year on Cool Street in Waterville as an example, calling it an upgrade to address system design problems that posed a threat to sensitive customers, including a nursing home.

There were at least four water main breaks there within the three years before the project, leaving the system weakened and making an overhaul a priority. It’s an issue that many water utility directors say they worry about following frequent failures.

“Sometimes when one part of the pipe starts to go it sets off a chain reaction of problems,” LeCasse said.

The Cool Street project was part of a $1.3 million major replacement project in the district last year. Other projects consisted of a pumping station upgrade in Fairfield, main improvements in Vassalboro and water meter upgrades.

The district typically pays for these bigger projects with loans to avoid raising rates, which have remained stable since 2007 and aren’t expected to rise for at least another two years, LeCasse said.

The district averages about 20 water main breaks per year, with the failures ranging from something as small as a leak on a hydrant to major pipes bursting. But the failures, which typically happen in the winter, have dropped significantly in the past 35 years after the capital improvement plan started in the 1970s, LeCasse said.

He started at the district before the plan began when the system averaged about 3 or 4 leaks per week in the winter, and today that figure down to about one leak per week, he said.

Most water utilities statewide follow the theory that most water pipes have a 100-year lifespan, with some saying the expectation reaches as high as 150 years depending on design, materials and installation, LaCasse said.

“Nobody was replacing pipes in the first 70 years, but you eventually get to the point where systems need work,” he said.

Many water systems in Maine had upgrades in the 1950s because of post-World War II infrastructure projects. Some of those systems, however, encountered issues earlier because they didn’t meet the same standards as the older water mains installed in the 1900s, LeCasse said.

“When we look at pipe failures we look at installations and the quality of the work and water-quality issues and so many other things,” he said.

“Certainly we can’t afford to upgrade everything all at once.”

‘Pipe-replacement mode’

Maine Water Company serves 20 communities statewide, including about 3,700 customers in Skowhegan, Oakland and Hartland.

There are annual investments in maintenance across the system, with the utility picking projects based on priorities that range from frequent breaks to attempting to coordinate with road replacement projects, according to Richard Knowlton, vice president of operations for the company.

Knowlton used the average investment of $150,000 in maintenance projects in the Skowhegan system as an example.

And there has been a recent push to invest even more in replacing old systems, he said.

The average age of the water systems features is about 50 years, and many of them still have significant portions of original water pipes installed around 1900 despite several decades of major system overhauls, Knowlton said.

“Pipe replacement was more prevalent in the 1950s, after the war, and in the 1970s again, and right now we’re all in that pipe-replacement mode again,” he said.

An improvement project in 2010 on Madison Avenue in Skowhegan cost $300,000 as part of the recent push to make major upgrades. Water rates typically increase on at least a three-year cycle to help pay for projects and avoid major spikes, depending on the community’s system needs, according to Knowlton.

Coordinated work

The Greater Augusta Utility District serves about 6,000 customers in the city of Augusta and surrounding communities.

The district spends about $1 million per year to improve pipes, hydrants, pump stations and water tanks. All of the water mains have an average age of about 65 years, according to Brian Tarbuck, general manager for the district.

Tarbuck said the typical goal is to replace about 1 percent of the system each year, and whenever possible the utility attempts to perform its maintenance at the same time as municipal infrastructure repairs.

Many utilities take the same approach to maintenance because most water main repairs involve tearing up roads and other infrastructure, Tarbuck said.

A recent project on State Street alongside the Capitol showed how utilities and transportation officials will work together, he said.

The utility learned that the state transportation department planned to do road work there in 2011. But that caused a potential problem because the utility had a water pipeline project scheduled for the same spot in 2013, Tarbuck said.

“We agreed that if (the water district’s) main fails underneath a brand new road, we’re all going to look a little silly if we have to dig it up,” Tarbuck said.

The transportation department officials delayed the project until 2012, and the pipeline project was moved up so it could get done in 2011, Tarbuck said.

The $767,338 water project on State Street was completed last year, along with several other water main replacements. The district last increased rates in 2003 when it paid off a water treatment plant project, Tarbuck said.

“All utilities have capital improvement programs, and it’s all a question of which mile of pipe is the most critical,” he said.

David Robinson — 861-9287

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