Home News and Features High Water Pressure Leads to Repairs For Homeowners, Businesses

High Water Pressure Leads to Repairs For Homeowners, Businesses

A water pressure gauge in the basement of city hall shows a water system pressure of 192 pounds per square inch (psi) recently. Pressure levels are lower at higher elevations. The state of Vermont believes water system pressures should range from 35 to 90 psi. Photo by Phil Dodd.
Montpelier’s high drinking water pressure — a serious concern for state regulators, the subject of a soon-to-be-finished hydraulic study, and a factor in regular water main breaks — is also causing many city property owners to incur costs of repairs to their own plumbing systems and sometimes the replacement of appliances.

Local plumbers report that many homeowners and businesses have been forced to replace failed pressure-reducing valves (PRVs), devices that reduce water pressure where a water line enters a building, at a cost from $200 to $900, not counting plumber fees. The PRVs will wear out or become clogged with particles eventually, but one local plumber said they should last 15 to 30 years. 

The high pressure and particulates in the water from frequent water main repairs appear to be causing PRVs in Montpelier to fail prematurely. In addition, some property owners have also had their water heaters, faucets, shower heads, toilets, or washing machines destroyed by high water pressure when their PRVs fail.

Repair costs borne by Montpelier property owners are in addition to the city’s expenses to repair water mains, which spring leaks and need to be repaired fairly frequently. The city is also paying for the long-term replacement of the city’s 52-mile water pipe distribution system.

“Our water system is aging,” Montpelier Public Works Director Kurt Motyka said in a budget overview video made Dec. 16. “We have lots of old pipes, many over 100 years old. That combined with the high pressure we have is a challenge for our community.” 

The Pressure’s On

The city has seen 260 water main breaks in the past 10 years, according to Motyka, a department employee since 2007 who was appointed director last fall.

The oldest water pipes in Montpelier are cast iron and are holding up better than ductile iron pipes installed starting in the 1970s, partly because acidic clay soils are corroding the ductile iron pipes. The cast iron pipes have four times the thickness of the ductile iron pipes, Motyka said.

The city is in the sixth year of a 50-year, $83 million plan to replace its aging water pipes with high-density polyethylene pipe, but it has no current plan to address the pressure level, which may be the highest in the state. The high-pressure system has been in place for a long time and allows water to reach the higher elevations in the city without the need for expensive pumps or more water towers (the city already has two towers, one on Towne Hill Road and one off of Terrace Street).

However, a state official who regulates drinking water systems says Montpelier’s water pressure should be much lower, and he is critical of the city’s approach of only focusing on pipe replacement, saying it does not get to the root of the problem. There are devices that can be used to lower the water pressure in gravity-fed systems like Montpelier’s.

Dana Nagy, drinking water community operations section supervisor for the state of Vermont, said the city’s 50-year plan alone is unacceptable. “The current approach does not address the high pressure,” he told The Bridge. “It’s just kicking the can down the road.” 

Montpelier’s water pressure is at its highest downtown and other lower elevation parts of the city, running in the 180 to 200 pounds per square inch (psi) range (the state recommends a range from 35 psi to 90 psi). According to Motyka, Montpelier’s pressure drops by 1 psi for every 2.3 feet of elevation above the lowest sections of town. Anecdotal information suggests that the pressure may create more problems at lower elevations.

Property Owners Foot the Bill for Repairs

One day last spring, Mason Singer, the owner of a building downtown at 2 Downing Street (and a board member of The Bridge), heard a noise in his cellar. Singer, who runs the design business Laughing Bear Associates from the building, went down to the basement. He found water pouring out of his water heater. He called a plumber who determined the water heater had blown because the pressure reducer controlling water pressure coming into the building had failed. Singer had to replace the water heater as well as the pressure reducer, at a total cost of just over $800.

“I was lucky to have been around when the pressure reducer blew or there could have easily been significant water damage,” Singer said. “In my opinion, the city should be reimbursing people for repairs and damage — this seems to be a system-caused problem that building owners have no control over,” he said. “Building owners in the bowl that is downtown Montpelier should not be footing the extra cost (for these sorts of repairs) due to what are foreseeable and avoidable failures. At the very least it would be useful for the city to alert owners in the affected neighborhoods of the ongoing danger.”

As a rule, the city does not reimburse property owners for water damage, PRV replacements, or other repairs. The city is only responsible if there is a negligent act by city staff, Motyka said.

Another lower-elevation resident, Sandra Vitzthum of Loomis Street, suffered significant damage when her pressure reducer valve gave out, possibly because a nearby water main repair caused sand and silt to get into her water system. “I had to replace two toilets and one water heater and repair a sink faucet,” she said. 

Tim Heney, whose family owns several offices and apartments in downtown Montpelier, says the high pressure has been an issue in the buildings and requires him to replace PRVs about every ten years, sometimes with more expensive versions designed for high pressure. Heney is currently running for city council in District 3.

One of the worst high-pressure incidents in recent memory occurred last summer at the Baird Street apartments, the large brick building on the corner of Baird and St. Paul streets downtown. In early August 2022, city water pressure caused a break in a pressure-reducing valve at the apartments, which then prompted water to burst internal pipes throughout the building. The event left residents of the building with no water for several days.

The rush of water apparently occurred after the city turned the water off to make repairs on nearby School Street, and then turned it back on again. “It seems, when they turned the water back on, it sent some kind of wave through our building,” Lucky Boardman, the building landlord, told VTDigger at the time. “It destroyed the old galvanized lines, because of the pressures the city of Montpelier has.” The water was running at around 200 psi, he said. 

Pressure-reducing valve failures are not limited to low-lying areas. Sean Sheehan of West Street has had to replace the PRV in his house three times, once where he lives now, when the water heater started to blow off water, and two other times when he lived on Clarendon Avenue. At the Clarendon house, his toilet ran nonstop one time, and the other time his faucets started dripping. Another medium elevation resident, Paul Carnahan, said he has had to replace his PRV twice at his house on Sabin Street. Most recently, clanging pipes were the signal that something was amiss.

John Stead, who has been a plumber for more than 30 years in Montpelier, said problems with PRVs seemed to increase about a decade ago. “I remember back then going to a house near the old Brown Derby (on Northfield Street) to replace a pressure-reducing valve,” he said. “Three days later it blew out again.”

“I’ve noticed that people in low-lying areas sometimes need either two pressure reducers in sequence or special high-pressure reducers, which can cost $800 to $900,” he said. Stead noted that failing PRVs often cause toilets to run. “The toilet can run and run and you end up with a huge water bill,” said. The city will sometimes forgive these large water bills, he said.

Plumber Jason Foster and his firm, Horizon Plumbing, replaced about 30 to 40 PRVs in Montpelier in 2022, he told The Bridge in late January. That same day his firm had just replaced one PRV and was on the way to replace two more. “It often comes about when a repair to a water main in the road causes sand and silt to get into the PRV,” he said.

At a few houses on Berlin Street, for some reason a lot of sand is getting into household water systems, even coming out faucets. “I have three houses on Berlin Street where sand got into and ruined washing machines,” Foster said. “That’s an expensive repair.” 

He said one solution to keep particulates out of a building’s water system and protect PRVs and appliances is to install a whole-house water filter. These cost between $150 and $500 and require cleaning of the filters every six months or so, Foster said, but he thinks the state should require whole-house filters.

The State Steps In

In a January 2022 letter sent to Montpelier with a new “Permit to Operate for the Montpelier Water System,” the state told the city it needed “to provide the division with a system-wide hydraulic analysis and a system improvements plan and schedule to include a prioritized list of critical infrastructure improvements for addressing line breaks, excessive distribution pressure and for managing high pressure transient events.”

The city has resisted state efforts to require a reduction in the water pressure, but it agreed to have the hydraulic study done. Motyka said that the Dufresne Group, a consulting civil engineering firm based in Barre, was conducting the study and that it should be finished “within a month.”

One reason for keeping higher pressure, Motyka said, is to have good pressure available for fire hydrants. “Fire insurance rates could go up if there is less pressure at the hydrants,” he said. Reducing water pressure, adding pumps, and possibly new towers could cost $30 million and would adversely impact pipe-replacement plans, Motyka previously told The Bridge.

He acknowledged in a recent interview that high pressure can fatigue water pipes, but believes that is not the main cause of the city’s frequent water main breaks. “I think the high pressures in Montpelier probably do have some contribution. But I don’t think that’s really the driving factor,” Motyka told VTDigger last fall. “I think it’s really the age of the piping.”

Nagy, of the state, has a different view. He noted that over the past five years there have been approximately 60 boil water notices issued in Montpelier because of both aged distribution pipes and high pressures in the system. Nagy says the Montpelier system, with its unusually high pressure, is unique in the state.

“From our perspective, there is a problem. It’s been a problem for a while. Right now we are trying to move this forward,” he said. Nagy says the division’s mission, in part, is to protect public health and to ensure a water system works properly for its citizens. “This situation can put public health at risk,” he said. “A 50-year plan is not acceptable. A five-year period with this many breaks is not acceptable,” he said.

Nagy acknowledges that large capital improvements to address the high pressure would be expensive, but he also wonders if the current approach is any less expensive over the long term. 

Jake Brown contributed reporting for this story. In Part 2 of our coverage of Montpelier drinking water system issues, The Bridge will examine the history of the city water system and plans for its future.

Signs of a Failing PRV

Local plumbers say there are a number of things that can indicate a pressure-reducing valve is failing:

  • Higher than normal water bills.
  • Toilets that keep running.
  • Clanging water pipes.
  • Dripping faucets.
  • Stronger water streams from faucets or showerheads.
  • Leaking pressure relief valves on hot water tanks.
Chuck Cacicio of Cacicio’s Heating suggested “exercising” any hot water tank pressure relief valves by flipping them up and down occasionally, or having a plumber do it.