To rebuild Michigan’s water infrastructure, one word: Plastics

John Dulmes

John Dulmes is executive director of the Michigan Chemistry Council, which represents one of our state’s largest manufacturing sectors and provides materials to more than 96 percent of all finished products.

Michigan needs to spend as much as $14 billion over the next 20 years to protect and maintain the systems that deliver safe, drinkable water to our homes, schools and businesses.

How, one might ask, is our state going to afford it?

Ensuring that Michigan’s engineers have the option to use the best piping materials for a particular project is a good place to start.

And that’s why the Michigan Senate needs to approve the important reforms of Senate Bill 157.

For decades, many of Michigan’s local water systems have relied upon one or two types of pipes – usually cast or ductile iron – to deliver drinking water. These pipes were once considered state of the art, but have since seen declining use in favor of newer materials and technologies.

That’s because older pipe materials can often come with serious performance problems. A 2011 study by the Water Research Foundation found the typical metallic pipe used in water projects may last barely more than a decade in “moderately corrosive soils” before crumbling apart. In other words, these pipes can be failing years, even decades, before taxpayers or ratepayers finish paying the loans taken out to install them.

And large swaths of Michigan, particularly on the east side and in the Upper Peninsula, score high for soil corrosion potential. It shouldn’t be too much of a surprise, unfortunately, that many of our water systems lose 10 percent to 50 percent of the water they carry and need replacement far sooner than expected.

By contrast, newer materials, such as PVC or HDPE plastic piping, are unaffected by such corrosion issues. In some cases, plastic piping has been dug up, cleaned off and judged to look “like new,” even after decades of service.

That’s one reason why these newer materials are often more cost-effective. One example from the National Taxpayers Union shows that plastic is considered to be between 30 percent and 70 percent less expensive than ductile iron pipe. This national review found that moving to nonmetallic pipes would significantly cut the replacement costs for aging water systems. In Michigan, the broad use of alternative piping materials could shave $1 billion off of our nearly $14 billion bill.

What’s more, Michigan communities would see a better return on investment simply by allowing for open bidding from multiple piping types. In 2016, a research firm studied the differences between communities that allow multiple piping materials, like Livonia and Monroe, and those that are stuck with just one type (such as Port Huron). They found the “open” communities to be enjoying capital costs about one-third cheaper than their closed counterparts. Even when open communities chose to remain with iron piping, they had lower costs than closed ones.

Such information may have informed the decision by the Governor’s 21st Century Infrastructure Commission to recommend state policies to encourage open competition in water infrastructure work. It’s time to move forward with this advice.

SB 157, expected to receive a Senate vote this week, sets up a simple framework in which project engineers can choose the best material for the job, as long as it meets certain national standards.

Let’s make sure Michigan’s regulations give those experts the flexibility they need to make the right choice.

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Peggy S. Collins
Tue, 06/06/2017 - 9:15am

plastics is a poor choice as it leaches hormone disruptors into the water that we drink. ceramics is the only choice. if you can line the inside of a plastic pipe with a ceramic coating - that might work. otherwise it only solves your problem with so much dang plastic and will poison all of us.

Wed, 06/07/2017 - 12:21pm

Sorry, but you're off-base.

Flint's problem was the leaching of lead and other contaminants from old pipes into the water from corrosion. This - and the failing pipes - should be our concern.

All installed pipes are NSF-certified for water safety.

John Saari
Sun, 06/11/2017 - 7:34am

NSF never tested and approved cast iron or steal pipe for domestic potable water.

Sun, 06/11/2017 - 12:26pm

The gradual leeching of phthalates from plastic is a very real concern. At least metal pipes will eventually be coated with a protective mineral layer--the same cannot be said for plastic pipes. This measure is, at the very least, premature.

John Saari
Tue, 06/06/2017 - 9:46am

plastic water lines are right for water mains for many reasons, but copper is the only way to go for service lines. Cheap, durable, non-toxic, and able to unfreeze a frozen line easily with electricity. And indoors it does not sag and come loose when piping hot water.

Tue, 06/06/2017 - 10:12am

Engineers should be able to pick the materials they want for the project. They have the knowledge and expertise. Iron Pipe can & will survive in corrosive soils if installed correctly.

Tue, 06/06/2017 - 11:11am

I just love it (sarcasm intended) when politicians feel they know better than engineers, doctors, or any other professional. They are politicians for a reason. They would have a hard time finding employment elsewhere.

Tue, 06/06/2017 - 11:17am

What the guest columnist chooses to ignore is that engineers across this state vocally oppose SB 157! It does the complete opposite of what he claims it will do and in fact will tie the hands of engineers and create a plastics preference in statute... Choose plastic because it's the cheapest or we will sue you!

John A Sullivan
Tue, 06/06/2017 - 11:37am

Engineers are now able to specify the best and most cost effective pipe material for each application. We do not need legislation pushed by the plastics industry to get in the way of Sound Engineering Practice.

Jim Brown
Tue, 06/06/2017 - 11:47am

This makes a lot of $en$e. Use the best material for the job.

Tue, 06/06/2017 - 4:12pm

Here's the thing Jim - engineers can already use plastic pipe if they deem it proper for the job. This bill makes it so they no longer would have a choice. Different materials are better in different situations. Leave things as they are. This is pretty much entirely the plastic pipe lobby pushing it as well as people who don't know that cheaper isn't always better.

Tue, 06/06/2017 - 4:09pm

The thing is, many Cities currently use and install new plastic water main, but only in the right circumstances. This bill does not help local municipalities at all. All it does is help the plastic pipe suppliers and takes the choice away from the locals. If plastic is the best option, trust the project engineer to choose it. Don't pass this law that takes the choice away from them. Call your representative and tell them to vote no.

Tue, 06/06/2017 - 4:45pm

More half-truths from the plastic pipe industry and their vendors... anyone surprised? Our industry should be used to this, and skeptical of anything they say at this point. We all know iron pipe corrodes in corrosive soils, so does concrete and steel pipe. What people outside of our industry don't know, is the low-cost insurance option of polywrapping their pipe.
If an iron pipeline is installed properly and polywrapped, there is scientific evidence that shows the lifespan of the pipe is HUNDREDS of years.
I couldn't agree more with the other fine folks that have commented on this thread. There's a time and place for everything, and the ONLY people educated enough to make the decision as to what is right for each individual application are the municipalities and their engineers.
Perhaps, just perhaps, when an entire industry other than 1 product type, lines up against a piece of legislation, it's probably not a good idea to start with.
Oh, and one more thing, this is a national effort. The same legislation has been brought up in 13 states, 17 times, and HAS FAILED EVERY, SINGLE TIME.
For more information regarding this legislation, including talking points against it, please visit:
Please contact your Senators and voice your opinions against the legislation.

Wed, 06/07/2017 - 9:40am

Hi Geoff, do you work for the iron pipe industry?

It's ironic to me that you would argue that - instead of allowing consideration of plastic pipes - cities should just use the higher priced iron pipe and wrap it in.....plastic!

There are unfortunately all too many circumstances of policies that protect monopolies and exclude other alternatives. I don't doubt that this happens in our infrastructure system as well.

Thu, 06/08/2017 - 3:27pm

"Tom"- I sure am a ductile iron guy! And by the half-truth you're attempting to spin on the cost of iron pipe versus plastic pipes, I'll assume you work for the chemical industry, or possibly even a plastic pipe manufacturer.
Please clarify exactly who you are calling a "monopoly". Surely, you can't be referring to the local, hardworking, municipal water systems, are you?!?!?!
If you want whole truths regarding this topic, here it is. This legislation, regardless of how it is worded or where it is introduced, is a top-down governmental solution to a problem that does not exist. It is there to promote 1 material over the rest because that material's growth pattern has become stagnant, and they no longer can gain acceptance at the local level.
You lose this time, you lose every time and everywhere. Want to know why? Quite simply, it's the wrong thing to do.

Tue, 06/06/2017 - 5:04pm

I just read the bill summary. While I am not a lawyer, it appears to simply open the process to include plastic as an option. I see nothing requiring its use. It still lets the engineers and municipality make the decision on what product is used.

John Saari
Sun, 06/11/2017 - 7:39am

The government should not be involved in this.

Barry Visel
Sun, 06/11/2017 - 1:58pm

I continue to wish that whenever Bridge publishes a "Guest Commentary" you would also publish an opposing view (assuming there is on...and judging from the comments there certainly is on this issue). Publishing a commentary without any other context is not very helpful.

Mark S
Mon, 06/12/2017 - 6:08am

They have the technology now to snake a spinning jet that sprays a plastic liner inside existing pipe. Eliminates the need to dig up the pipe. Similar to wheeled oil pipeline welders that travel along and seal the pipe connections from the inside.

Tue, 06/13/2017 - 1:52pm

If plastic pipe were truly a superior product with a reduced price then municipal engineers would fall all over themselves to go ahead and specify it. Plastic pipe has been an approved material for many years and has failed to gain market share on its own merits so this bill and this propaganda article are simply an attempt by the plastic industry and their chemical suppliers like Dow to legislate their market share. They failed to convince the engineers so they are now calling in the favors from all those legislators they made donations to. Lowest price on bid opening day doesn't necessarily equate with best value over time. Local engineers know best the conditions they work in, not legislators or propaganda articles.