Water pipe breaks mostly caused by fragile infrastructure, says Department of Environmental Protection

A ruptured water pipe in Terminal 4 at JFK airport led to delayed flights and jammed traffic on Jan. 7, 2018.
A ruptured water pipe in Terminal 4 at JFK airport led to delayed flights and jammed traffic on Jan. 7, 2018. Photo Credit: Getty Images/Spencer Platt

Recent cold snaps have been rough on city pipes, but experts say there are ways building owners can put up a stronger defense.

From Jan. 1 to Jan. 15, when there were only five days above freezing, the city’s Department of Environmental Protection recorded 347 water leaks on private property including the burst pipe that crippled a JFK Airport terminal.

DEP officials and infrastructure experts say despite common misconceptions that city water mains are the culprit, the actual problem lies in the fragile infrastructure of many of the city’s privately-owned buildings. In fact, water main breaks have decreased from 563 in the 2015 fiscal year to 424 in the 2017 fiscal year, according to city stats.

“The issue is all about where and how the heat is distributed,” said Kevin Bone, professor at the Cooper Union’s Irwin S. Chanin School of Architecture. “A lot of buildings may not have good insulation on their roofs where the water tanks are and as a result the pipes are exposed to the cold.”

Though temperatures aren’t expected to drop below freezing anytime soon, DEP officials are encouraging homeowners to safeguard their pipes now to prevent future winter leaks.

A small crack or an unattended draft under the sink can be enough to affect the pipes, regardless of their age, said Tasos Georgelis, the deputy commissioner for water and sewer operations at DEP.

“The key is to keep getting the heat through the pipes,” said Georgelis. “You want to make sure everything is covered and keep even a small drip running [through the faucet] to make sure everything stays warm.”

Bone added that complex water systems, especially those in large offices, can make it harder to identify problem areas. For example, it took just one burst pipe at JFK’s terminal two weeks ago to flood the space and cause massive delays and flight cancellations for thousands of international travelers.

Georgelis said the city has increased efforts to make sure its own pipes are in working order. The nearly 7,000 miles of water mains are already located four feet below the ground, well below the frost point, and the city has invested more money in maintaining the mains over the last few years.

Efforts have already made a difference: the number of water main breaks per 100 miles dropped from eight in the 2015 fiscal year to 6.1 in the 2017 fiscal year, according to the Mayor’s Management Report. Georgelis said the American Water Works Association pegged the national average at 25 breaks per 100 miles.

DEP has also worked to decrease pipe breaks on private property with its Service Line Protection Plan, which launched in 2013. Homeowners can sign up and pay an additional $4.49 per month on their water bill for unlimited water line protection, saving them money on water repairs that could cost as much as $5,000, according to Georgelis.

“First time homeowners don’t recognize what it is and when something happens, they realize they have to do the repairs,” he said.

Bone said the program, which has over 261,000 subscribers, is a step in the right direction, and added that the city could do more by enforcing building code laws.

“The number one problem are poorly maintained buildings that are heated by negligent landlords,” he said.

City Councilman Costa Constantinides, who chairs the environmental protection committee, agrees and plans to work with the agency to develop better solutions.

“Through our upcoming budget process we’ll assess how DEP is handling these issues and determine how we as a city can do better,” he said in a statement.