Letter: Facts confirm PVC water mains perform during wildfires
A recent opinion piece by Brita Horn published in Steamboat Pilot & Today titled, “Wildfires threaten our water supply; plastics make the threat worse,” gets the facts wrong about PVC water pipe. The author’s contention that forest fires have melted or burned buried PVC water mains is patently false.
This is not possible, since the U.S. communities struck by wildfires have confirmed that no PVC water transmission or distribution mains were damaged and remained in service during these events. However, wildfires destroyed both metallic and plastic service lines — smaller diameter pipes running from water mains to buildings — wherever they were above grade.
No water piping directly impacted by the extreme heat of a wildfire can survive undamaged. If exposed to extreme heat, at a minimum, the rubber gaskets in the joints of a ductile iron water transmission pipeline would have melted and made it unusable. The notion that any water main pipe is fireproof is simply untrue.
The article is also entirely misleading in its claim that PVC water pipes are a source of benzene contaminating water supplies after wildfire events. Click here for a technical brief on the subject. This is not possible, because, as previously mentioned, no PVC water transmission or distribution mains were damaged from wildfires in the U.S. The reason for this is that PVC piping and other water mains are typically installed far enough underground that they are unaffected by the heat of a wildfire. By far the largest producer of benzene in any wildfire is the wood combustion from burning trees.
Furthermore, Ms. Horn cites a methodologically flawed study in her piece that also misleads readers. She claims that “researchers from Purdue University studied (the Tubbs and Camp) fires.” Yet these researchers did not test any samples from either fire. Readers are right to question her statements when the research she cites fails to support the conclusions she draws. The study is unreliable and relies on manipulated material samples in contrived conditions that are not comparable to those in a real-world wildfire.
Finally, the notion that PVC pipe is weak and prone to failure is not borne out by over 60 years of successful use in North America or by independent research and dig-ups. Studies by the American Water Works Association and Utah State University show that PVC pipe will last more than 100 years. The AWWA Water Research Foundation estimates the life expectancy of PVC water pipes to be in excess of 110 years, and a European study determined its longevity at 170 years. And according to the internationally renowned report “Water Main Breaks in the USA and Canada: A Comprehensive Study,” PVC water pipes have the lowest break rate of all commonly used piping materials in North America.
Contrary to Ms. Horn’s claims, PVC water pipe is an affordable, durable and safe option for water systems in areas that can be impacted by wildfires.
Uni-Bell PVC Pipe Association executive director
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