Why do our pipes break?

By Eduardo Villa

The long-term impact of February 2021’s Winter Storm Uri is now manifesting across our district in the form of leaks in our plumbing systems.

Driving the news: The historic winter storm and power outage that taxed our most vulnerable, aged buildings, compounded by a year of idled campus operations, created the perfect model for burst pipes.

State of play: Water and power shut off across the city during the winter storm, leaving our schools without heat or water flow, leading water to freeze, causing pipes to swell, crack, or burst, creating water leaks when the water thawed.

  • Visibly damaged pipes were repaired during that time.
  • Many went unnoticed because campuses were not occupied and used until later in the school year. 
  • Since August 2021, five schools have had plumbing-related repairs tied to the winter storm. 

When a pipe breaks at a school, the district’s operations team identifies the damaged pipe, estimates the time of the repair, and works with the campus principal to avoid interruptions to school operations as repairs can sometimes take hours.

  • Leaks are reported in several ways: monitoring systems alert of a reduction in water pressure or a spike in water consumption, or through observation by someone on campus.
  • “When doing these repairs we have to shut water off and excavate, many times pipes are beneath concrete or cement slabs,” Chief Operations Officer Matias Segura said.

Yes, but: When there’s a leak, only the damaged portion of the pipes gets repaired. The district budgets for unforeseen repairs such as these but is unable to do complete plumbing system upgrades without the help of additional money, which comes in bonds.

  • The 2017 Bond supported upgrading many aging campuses with plumbing issues by funding brand new buildings like Menchaca, T.A.Brown, and Ann Richards schools.

The bottom line: Most (75%) of the cause is derived from aging infrastructure, and 10% to 15% is because of the impact of the winter storm. The rest is caused by campuses brought back online after the virtual learning period of the pandemic.

  • The district can’t upgrade whole plumbing systems without a bond. When there’s a leak, it uses the allocated budget to repair the affected pipes. 
  • Students' needs are met during the repair by deploying portable sinks and restrooms, providing water bottles, and modifying menus to require less water.
  • The district is prepared to address future winter storms by running buildings as if they were occupied – keeping heaters on to maintain warm pipes. Water level monitoring also increases during extreme weather.
  • “We have millions of dollars in deferred maintenance, most of it attributed to our aging infrastructure,” Segura said. “The best way to wipe out deferred maintenance is to make a significant investment, essentially large system improvements, to complete facility replacements.”

Flashback: What was the cost of damages of Winter Storm Uri? Seventy-two campuses reported damage during the winter storm, totaling $8.9 million in repairs.