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The Challenges of Decommissioning or Maintaining Ageing Pipe Infrastructure


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When a pipeline blows, it makes the news. In some cases for the footage of water shooting metres into the sky, but in the case of gases and volatile fuels, it is for the horrendous damage to property and the environment, so it is little wonder, that numerous companies and tertiary institutions spend a lot of time and money trying to resolve the issue before it gets to that point.

In Australia there have been several notable cases of pipelines succumbing to stress and swallowing cars and buildings as the ground opens up to create an engineering nightmare sinkhole. 

In Bellevue Hill, NSW,  two cars, a tree and a power pole were swallowed by a 25 metre crater caused by a burst water main, while in Ultimo a large water main burst and flooded about 300 metres of roadway. One driver became caught in the flood water and was forced to abandon the vehicle. It has been a miracle that lives weren’t lost, and as the infrastructure ages, the risk become greater,

One study due for completion at the end of 2016 (results still to be published), is the Advanced Condition Assessment & Pipe Failure Prediction (ACAPFP) Project is a dedicated to solving failures in ageing critical pipelines which deliver fresh water to towns and cities across the world.

Failures in “critical pipes," which are those with diameters greater than 300 mm, present a major challenge to cost effective management of water pipe assets. 

Failures in “critical pipes," which are those with diameters greater than 300 mm, present a major challenge to cost effective management of water pipe assets. Using a 1.5 km section of decommissioned pipeline in Sydney’s Strathfield, which was laid in 1922, researchers have developed machine learning software tools to interpret data from sensors designed to accurately establish the thickness of pipe and any defects. Any resultant technology utilised by the industry could save $160 million over 20 years. 

The partners in the research (valued at more than $13.4m in cash and in-kind support) are from across the globe and include:  Sydney Water Corporation, UK Water Industry Research Ltd., Water Research Foundation of the USA, Water Corporation (WA), City West Water, Melbourne Water, Yarra Valley Water, South Australia Water Corporation, Queensland Urban Utilities, South East Water Ltd, and Hunter Water Corporation. On the research side, Monash University leads the project, supported by University of Technology Sydney and the University of Newcastle.

Other commercial enterprises are already implementing high tech and sensitive engineering solutions to manage extremely low tech, and ageing pipelines. Beneath our streets lies a tangle of pipes, all interwoven and of varying materials - from clay and brick to cement, lead and iron - each presenting its own set of unique challenges.

Beneath our streets lies a tangle of pipes, all interwoven and of varying materials - from clay and brick to cement, lead and iron - each presenting its own set of unique challenges. 

Global companies such as Tri-Tool utilise precision in-place weld prep equipment to bevel hard to cut alloys and create reliable welding repairs that can withstand corrosive fluids. For more modern plastic coated pipes, the company utilises coating removal machines to expose underlying metal and speed up maintenance of ageing infrastructure.

Other companies such as Mainmark, which specialises in both maintenance and decommissioning of ageing infrastructure, have developed proprietary products which can manage sensitive situations, such as shallow pipes which run as little as a metre below ground, beneath schools, roads and private property. Often these pipes cannot be dug out without serious damage or the creation of underground voids leading to subsidence, water ingress or soil destabilisation with the potential of serious ground collapse.

Mainmark’s solutions have been successfully employed to decommission major water infrastructure projects in NSW and utilised Terefil® - a lightweight and cementious grout solution, capable of being pumped quickly across long distances into a pipeline to fill it safely and quickly without damaging buildings or above-ground infrastructure.

The ENCAP6® solution is versatile, with the ability to bond to concrete, brick, vitreous, earthenware and metal pipelines to seal and protect the substrate. 

The company has also developed ENCAP6®, and advanced anti-corrosion spray on solution to revitalise ageing steel or concrete pipelines. This solution was successfully employed by Gladstone Council in Queensland to strengthen a galvanised steel drainage pipe in danger of collapse from three factories on top of it. The ENCAP6® solution is versatile, with the ability to bond to concrete, brick, vitreous, earthenware and metal pipelines to seal and protect the substrate. It also has chemical and abrasion resistance and hydrolytic stability whilst remaining environmentally inert. 

There is no doubt that ageing pipeline infrastructure will remain an issue across the globe for some time to come, and that technology will continue to evolve to manage its increasingly complex maintenance and decommissioning. 

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