The story behind a historic water main

The story behind a historic water main
December 13, 2017

The water main that broke near the intersection of Oak and Clay Streets on December 12, 2017, is a 48-inch main that was installed in 1892.

It was part of an improvement plan that began as early as 1888. Louisville Water Company’s annual report for that year noted the growth of the city and its demand for more water. The last major improvement had been the addition of the Crescent Hill Reservoir and a 36-inch transmission main to the city in 1879 when Louisville Water was pumping an average of 5.1 million gallons of water a day. By 1888, that number had doubled to 10.3 million gallons. The antiquated system would soon be overwhelmed if improvements were not made.

Officials developed a multifaceted plan that included building a new pumping station, enlarging mains around the city and installing the 48-inch transmission main. Because the need for the new main was immediate, the company could not wait long enough to save profits for the expansion, so company officials got approval from state legislators to borrow the money.

Preliminary work on the new main began in 1891, and it went into service on December 30, 1893. The cast iron pipe stretched six miles, beginning at the Crescent Hill Reservoir and ending at the intersection of Oak and 12th streets. According to company officials, once completed, the newly built improvements were able “to meet fully the wants of the city and citizens as to an abundant water supply.”

Maintaining pipes today

Today, Louisville Water has over 4,200 miles of water main in its system. Most of the pipe is called distribution main and ranges in size from 6 to 20 inches in diameter. About 200 miles of the pipe is “transmission main,” larger pipes that range from 20 inches in diameter to 60 inches in diameter. These pipes are like the interstate highways and carry large volumes of water.

And like you take care of your car or home, Louisville Water has a maintenance program for its pipe. Once installed, we expect a main to last about 100 years, but during that period, we keep an eye on how it operates.

In the 1980s, Louisville Water began a program to replace and repair the smaller pipe, the distribution pipe. We aimed for replacing up to 10 miles of pipe annually. We've selected the pipe locations based on a number of factors, including leaks, breaks, and customer impact.

For the larger pipes, until recently, it’s been a challenge to inspect and repair them, primarily because we just can’t empty the pipes of water and do the work. Over the past few years, however, robotic technology has been created that allows us to take a look at the larger pipes. In some cases, the pipes are filled with water and a device floats through the pipe to look for issues. In other cases, we empty the pipe for a short period and use the robotic technology.

Each year, Louisville Water commits millions of dollars to inspecting, repairing or replacing pipes. In 2018, the budget for this type of work is $44 million. This type of maintenance work is critically important since Louisville Water is a lifeline to the region. The maintenance helps eliminate the number of water main breaks (our goal is less than 15 breaks per 100 miles of pipe) and maintain excellent water quality.

Here is a link to information on how robotic inspections work: Why is there a robot in your water line?

And here's a link to a video that shows how inspections determined the repair plan for the Eastern Parkway project that is underway now: Main Replacement and Rehabilitation

The following photos show the 1892 installation of the 48-inch main that recently broke near Clay and Oak.