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1.4: System Design

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    Student Learning Outcomes

    After reading this chapter, you should be able to:

    • Explain how source water availability and reliability affects distribution system design
    • Describe the three main distribution system configurations
    • Evaluate the main requirements, which affect the quantity of distribution system storage
    • Analyze and describe the main types of distribution system maps

    When designing a water distribution system a lot of different things need to be considered. For example, the following questions are some which might be considered:

    • What will the water be used for?
    • Is it a small rural farming community or a large industrial metropolitan city?
    • Will the community grow in size?
    • Are there other sources of supply available?

    Planning is an important step in the design of a water distribution system. Most early communities were built around a water source, some place where water was available. This obviously made planning and design much easier. However, as villages grew into towns and as communities began to spread out well beyond the original sources of supply, planning and design became more difficult and more important. Below is a list of a few things that should be considered prior to or during the design of distribution systems.

    1. Water availability – Is there an available supply of water to meet current and future demands?
    2. Source reliability – How reliable is the source or sources of supplies?
    3. Water quality – Does the current water quality meet regulatory standards?
    4. Location – What is the location of the community in relation to the sources of supply? What is the topography of the community?
    5. Local, state, and federal requirements – In addition to water quality regulations, there are other local, state, and federal regulations

    Let’s break down each one of these items in a little more detail.

    Water Availability

    It is not by coincidence that early settlers and homesteads were in close proximity to rivers and lakes. These water bodies provided a source of freshwater for drinking and bathing. In addition, it provided a good source of food. In addition to fish, other animals would gather around water sources. As communities began to grow, the availability of water became more and more important. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, Los Angeles relied mostly on local groundwater supplies. However, as the population began expanding rapidly, the need for another source of supply became evident. At the time, William Mulholland was the Los Angeles Water Company Superintendent and was instrumental in bringing water from the Owens Valley area in the north, making it available so Los Angeles could continue to expand.

    Bringing water from the north to southern California required an extensive transmission pipeline system. Once the water reached Los Angeles, a distribution system network allowed people to reside and spread out all across the area. A water transmission system is typically composed of large diameter pipelines bringing water to areas, which lack available water supplies. In contrast, a water distribution system disperses water throughout a given area through smaller diameter pipelines. Pipeline diameters and types will be discussed in more detail later in this text.

    Water Reliability

    Accessing water from different sources and locations, such as in the case of Los Angeles, allowed for cities to grow at a rapid rate. In the early 1900s, William Mulholland realized the local groundwater serving the city of Los Angeles would not sustain the growing population and discovered another source of supply to the north. In this case, the Owens Valley not only provided an additional supply (availability) for Los Angeles, it also increased the supply reliability for the region. Multiple supplies of water increase reliability. For example, if an area relies on a surface water supply as their main source and there is not enough precipitation one year to sustain the surface supply, a local groundwater system can supplement the demand.

    In a distribution system having pipelines, which interconnect, can provide a more reliable supply in the event of pipeline breaks or system failures. For example, a grid pipeline network (discussed later in this chapter) provides water service from multiple directions allowing water to be served to customers from more than one location. Having a reliable supply of water and a redundant system of pipelines is critical to an efficiently run water distribution system. In addition, having back up sources of power to operate pumps in the event of power outages also provides increased reliability.

    Water Quality

    In addition to having an available and reliable supply of water, it is important to have a supply, which meets water quality standards. A safe water supply is equally as important as any other consideration when designing a water distribution system. In instances where source water quality does not meet drinking water regulations, treatment can be implemented. However, if sources of supply are not in centralized locations, the cost of treatment can be prohibitive. For example, if a water utility has multiple drinking water groundwater wells and these wells are spread throughout the distribution system or several miles, centralized treatment would be difficult. If each of these wells were contaminated, it might mean individual treatment systems would need to be installed at each location. The cost for individual treatment systems is typically more costly than a centralized treatment system. In contrast, if these wells are located within close proximity to each other, a centralized treatment system could be installed. This could significantly reduce the cost of treatment.

    The cost of treatment is paid for by each customer through water rates. Therefore, in smaller communities, any type of treatment could be costly causing devastating consequences for the residents. This is purely an “economy of scale” issue. For example, if the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP) had to provide treatment on a groundwater well, the cost of this treatment would be spread out among their rate base (total number of paying customers). LADWP has hundreds of thousands of paying customers. However, if a small rural water utility with only a few hundred or even thousand customers needed the same type of treatment, it might end up being cost-prohibitive.


    The next area which needs to be considered is location. When it comes to real estate, the common mantra is “location, location, location”. Well, this sort of speaks true to a water distribution system too. Location provides for water availability, reliability, and quality. This is not to say water cannot be brought in to areas where it does not naturally exist, but it does come at an additional cost. Water that is of good quality, readily available, and reliable will be considerably cheaper than if clean and reliable water needs to be imported over long distances.

    Location also has to be considered when it comes to the actual design of a water system. For example, is the water distribution going to be built in an area, which is subject to freezing temperatures? If so, this will affect the depth of water distribution system infrastructure as well as above-ground appurtenances such as fire hydrants. If a fire hydrant is filled with water and the ambient temperature is below freezing for long periods of time, the water within the hydrant can freeze rendering the hydrant inoperable. Topography will also affect system design. Are there wide ranges of elevation of the proposed water distribution system or is the topography relatively flat and uniform? If there is a wide variation in elevations, additional pumping might be required, as well as other appurtenances compared to an area where the terrain is flat. Other things that may affect distribution system design based on location are things like soil corrosivity and local geology. This can affect the types of material used for things such as piping as well as the installation process.

    Local, State, and Federal Requirements

    Regulations will dictate minimum water quality and some system design standards and details. These standards and details can range from permitting the installation of facilities to very specific drinking water quality regulations. Each state, county, and city can have different criteria that can affect the design and installation of a water distribution system.

    At a minimum, all public water utilities must meet federal drinking water quality regulations. These regulations however, can vary from state to state. State drinking water quality regulations must be at least as strict as the federal standards, but they can be more stringent. An example of this is with the constituent chromium. There are several valance levels of chromium, with chromium VI being the most common. However, the federal Safe Drinking Water Act (SDWA) and California (SDWA) have a maximum contaminant level (MCL) for “total” chromium. This is the maximum level of all valances of chromium allowed in drinking water. In the federal SDWA, the MCL for total chromium is 100 micrograms per liter (ug/L) and in California, the level is 50 ug/L. This is an example where the state water quality regulation is more stringent than the federal requirement.

    When it comes to design and installation criteria, there can be a number of local requirements, which include excavation permits, offset distances from other facilities, as well as other conditions. It is important for the design team to understand these requirements and help plan for them before and during the installation of distribution facilities.

    In addition to these considerations when it comes to the design of a distribution system, there are a variety of other criteria that should be considered. Below is not an exhaustive list, but it covers various items that should also be considered.

    • Future growth – In many areas, there are or will be plans for future growth. Some of these growth projections are understood through local planning documents, while other areas might not have as much detail. Regardless, it is always prudent to work with local agencies on the potential for future development plans and growth. This is particularly important when it comes to the sizing of facilities. For example, if a pipeline for an existing number of homes only needs to be six (6) inches in diameter, but will need to supply many more homes in the future, it might be prudent to increase the size of the pipeline in anticipation of this future growth. This is also true for pumping and storage facilities. It is important for water utilities to understand the projected population growth of their area, understand the existing and future projected water demands, and what sort of fire protection requirements are needed for each type of customer class.
    • Cost and Funding – Cost is another important item to consider when designing and building a new or expanding an existing distribution system. Who benefits from the work being done? Is the distribution system expansion for a new development or is it to improve the service for existing customers. Many times if a new development is being planned, the owner (developer) of the property will be responsible for paying the costs associated with expanding the distribution system. However, the developer should also be responsible for paying some portion of the cost for the existing water system too. Why you might ask? Well, while the existing water system is benefitting the existing customers, a portion of the existing system will provide some benefit to the new development as well. Understanding this proportional cost is beyond the scope of this chapter and would be covered in more detail in a text related to water rates. However, it is important to understand that building a new distribution system or expanding an existing distribution system is quite costly and this cost needs to be shared by the customers receiving benefit. Sometimes a developer will pay for some or all of a distribution system project while other times the utility may carry debt to fund certain projects and then spread the cost to their customers over time.

    Distribution System Layout

    Planning is an important step in designing the layout of a water distribution system. While all the items discussed above should be considered before and during the planning stages, there are other “nuts and bolts” related planning items in order to layout the design of a distribution system.

    Distribution systems are commonly designed by the utilities engineering department while other times engineering consultants are used. Regardless of who the engineer is, planning the design layout is a critical step in any distribution system. Calculations need to be completed in order to properly size facilities, pipelines, and the various appurtenances of a distribution system. Some of the items which are considered are the following:

    • Water demands
    • Flow rates
    • Flow velocity
    • Fire flow requirements
    • Topography
    • Pressure
    • Power requirements
    • Material selection
    • Land ownership

    This is by no means an exhaustive list. However, it should provide some insight into things, which are considered when planning and designing a distribution system. These and other items help determine what materials are selected, the size of facilities needed, and how things are designed and ultimately installed.

    While most of the planning and design of distribution systems is conducted in the office with professional engineers, distribution operators should also be consulted. Unfortunately, this step of discussing the planning and design of a distribution system with field operators is sometimes overlooked. Many times, the steps of planning and design happen without the input from the very people who will be installing and operating the systems being designed. It might seem obvious to consult distribution operators, but why then is it often overlooked? A lot of information is gathered during the planning and design phase. One of the more important things to review are plans called as-built drawings. An as-built drawing is simply that, it is a plan that is modified after it was installed and “as it was built”. Even after everything is considered during the planning and design stage, when the design plans make it to the field and the facilities are actually installed, things are often adjusted and changed during installation. These changes and adjustments are the result of conflicts that were not identified on the design plans and can end up costing significantly more than what was initially proposed. While the idea of being able to avoid all conflicts is not conceivable, consulting with field employees before the design plans are complete can help reduce some of these unforeseen conflicts.

    Distribution Design Configurations

    One of the more important things behind the functionality of a distribution system is the layout or configuration. There are three (3) common distribution system configurations. These are arterial loop, gird, and tree systems. Each one will be explained below. While some of these may be a more preferred and ideal installation configuration, sometimes less desirable designs cannot be avoided. The primary goal of a well-designed water distribution system is to provide good water quality at acceptable pressures to the utility’s customers. In order to meet these and other objectives such as meeting the required customer water demands, which include flows to fight fires and limiting the number of customers out of water during outages, the design of a water distribution system is extremely important.

    Arterial Loop System

    The idea behind an arterial loop system is to provide flexibility by supplying water to the distribution system from multiple locations. This system attempts to surround the distribution system with larger diameter water mains. This provides adequate flows (volumes of water) to the interconnecting distribution system from different locations. Arterial mains are constructed on the perimeter of a distribution system bringing a main flow of water supply from various branches. An arterial loop system typically has very large diameter pipes (referred to as transmission mains) providing water to smaller but still large diameter mains (referred to as arterial mains), which then feed water to smaller mains (referred to as distribution mains), and finally, these mains distribute water to the customers. See the example diagram below.

    Macintosh HD:Users:drovla:Desktop:Screen Shot 2017-10-29 at 12.03.26 PM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Arterial Loop Distribution System by Mike Alvord is licensed under CC BY 4.0

    Grid System

    A grid system is one of the more desirable distribution system layouts. They can provide water to all customers from multiple areas. This configuration allows water to circulate throughout the entire system providing better water quality, pressures, and flow rates. Another positive benefit to a grid system is the ability to limit the number of customers who are out of water during outages from things such as water main breaks. The main difference between an arterial loop and a simple grid system is the grid system shown below is typically fed by a single transmission and/or arterial main.

    Macintosh HD:Users:drovla:Desktop:Screen Shot 2017-10-29 at 12.09.28 PM.png
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Grid System by Mike Alvord is licensed under CC BY 4.0

    Tree System

    This type of distribution system is the least desirable design. A tree system is typically fed by one larger main and then branches off to smaller distribution mains. However, as shown below, a tree system’s distribution mains end in something referred to as “dead ends”. Dead ends are where a water main terminates at the end of a cul-de-sac or other area where it cannot connect to another distribution main. Dead ends can result in reduced water quality, pressure, and flow. If a dead end distribution main is too large, the water in the main can become stagnant and cause undesirable taste, odor, and color water quality problems. Therefore, dead-end water mains are sometimes undersized and then can result in reduced pressures and flows.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Tree System by Mike Alvord is licensed under CC BY 4.0


    An appurtenance is a generic term for accessories associated with a functioning distribution system. In this chapter, we will only focus on the last two appurtenances in the list below. Most of the others on the list below will be discussed in more detail later in this text.

    • Valves
    • Fire hydrants
    • Elbow and angles
    • Fittings
    • Blow offs
    • Air and vacuum valves (airvac)

    In water distribution systems where there are high and low points (topographic elevation changes) blow offs and airvacs are commonly used. When you have low points in water pipelines, debris (sand, dirt) can accumulate at the bottom of the pipes. Also, as previously mentioned, water can become stagnant at the end of pipelines (dead ends). In these situations, blows are installed. Blow offs allow distribution system operators to flush water in order to remove any stagnant water or debris. In contrast, air can accumulate in high points of a pipeline. In order to remove air, air and vacuum valves are installed to automatically release air from the distribution system. Below are some examples of these appurtenances.

    Senior Airman Brad Stevens, 36th Civil Engineer Squadron water and fuels systems journeyman, performs a fire hydrant flow test April 30 at Andersen Air Force Base, Guam. Water and fuels systems maintainers also repair, maintain or replace washers, valve seats, leaking faucets and interior, exterior water and sewer lines. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Joshua Smoot/Released)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Image by the Anderson Air Force Base is in the public domain
    Air valve (model and workings)
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Image by Shigeru23 is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
    Elbow pipe fitting
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Elbow pipe fitting – Image by Cschirp is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0
    Downtown Charlottesville fire hydrant
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Downtown Charlottesville Fire Hydrant by Ben Schumin is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5

    Water System Demands

    As mentioned previously in this chapter, water demand is an important parameter, which is reviewed when planning and designing a water distribution system. Water demand includes a number of things including the demand of all customers within a distribution system (residential, commercial, industrial) and the demand to fight fires. It is important to identify not just the average demand of a distribution system, but also the maximum amount of water demanded on any given day and the peak demand during any given hour of the day. These three (3) demand factors are critical in the design of a distribution system and are defined below.

    • Average Day Demand (ADD) – The average day demand is the total distribution system water use over one (1) year, which is then divided by 365 days. In the design of a new distribution system without any existing users, land use projections are commonly used to estimate the amount of water, which will be used by future users.
    • Maximum Day Demand (MDD) – The maximum day demand is determined by looking at the entire demand over one (1) year and determining the day with the highest (maximum) usage over one twenty-four (24) hour period. Daily demands are typically calculated using production meters from supply facilities bringing water into a distribution system.
    • Peak Hour Demand (PHD) – The peak hour demand is the highest water usage over a one (1) hour period. This demand number can be measured by production meters, but can also be estimated through calculations.

    Fire Flow Demands

    Residential, commercial, and industrial water demands are important for designing a distribution system. However, fire flows are a critical component, especially when sizing storage and pumping facilities. Fire flows are commonly the determining factor when sizing water systems in smaller communities serving a population of less than 50,000 people. Fire flows are determined through a variety of fire and building code criteria determined by the Insurance Services Office (ISO). Local fire departments and organizations are typically responsible for providing this information and guidance to water utilities. Among other criteria, the ISO identifies minimum pipe diameters for specific uses, as well as pressure and flow requirements. Most areas have a requirement that pressures do not drop below twenty (20) pounds per square inch (psi). The flow requirements will vary based on the type of use, such as schools, commercial buildings, and residential areas.

    Network Analysis

    Engineers use a variety of tools when planning and designing a water system to determine the size of facilities, which will dictate the pressure, and velocity of the water flowing through the pipes. The pressure within a distribution system is determined primarily by the elevation of the storage facilities within the system. Pressure is commonly measured in pounds per square inch (psi). One (1) pound per square inch equates to 2.31 feet of elevation, referred to as “head pressure”. Therefore, if a water storage tank sits one hundred (100) feet above a water service, the subsequent pressure would be 43.3 psi. Mathematically, this is accomplished by dividing 100 feet by 2.31 (see below).

    • 100 Feet x 1 psi2.31 feet=43.3psi

    This pressure is a theoretical pressure in a water distribution system. As the water moves through pipes and the various appurtenances throughout a distribution system, the pressure is reduced due to friction. The roughness of the interior of the pipe, the diameter of the pipe, the changes in direction of the piping, and valves, all have an effect on the velocity and pressure of the flow of water. A standard calculation used by engineers to determine this head loss due to friction is the Hazen-Williams equation. Another commonly used formula is the Darcy-Weisbach equation. These equations are beyond the scope of this text and beyond the necessary knowledge for distribution system operators to perform their jobs appropriately. Therefore, they are discussed in this chapter, but will not be used or explained beyond the general nature of their use by engineers. Since the Hazen-Williams equation is ideal for fluids such as water flowing at ordinary temperatures (40°to 75°F) it is the more commonly used formula. This equation is used to identify the smoothness (roughness) of the interior of a water main. The rougher the pipe interior, the more friction loss will be observed. This equation relates the flow of water in a pipe with the physical properties of the pipe and the pressure drop caused by friction. The resulting value is referred to as the C-Factor. The higher the C-Factor the smoother the pipe interior and the less head loss from friction. The lower the C-Factor, the rougher the pipe interior, which results in greater head loss from friction. The table below shows some typical pipe materials and corresponding C-Factors.


    Hazen-Williams C-Factor

    Asbestos Cement


    Cast-Iron 20 years old


    Cast-Iron 40 years old




    Ductile Iron (cement-lined)


    Ductile Iron


    PVC (C900/905)


    Another tool engineers use to determine the various parameters of a water distribution system is a hydraulic water model. Water models can help determine expected flows and pressures throughout a distribution system network and can sometimes accurately mirror what is occurring in the distribution system. While these models can be accurate in predicting pressures and flows, it is also helpful to calibrate these computer models with actual field data. Pressure recorders can be placed throughout a distribution system on things such as fire hydrants to measure and record the pressure in a distribution system over a period of time. Some pumping equipment can also be equipped with devices to measure the pressure on the suction and discharge side of a pump.

    Pressure is an important parameter to measure and monitor within a distribution system. Some systems can have excessive water pressures or very low pressures. This presents a problem for utility operators and customers alike. If pressures are too low, customers may not be able to operate things like irrigation sprinkler systems. If pressures are too high, things may prematurely fail due to the excessive pressure. Under normal flow conditions, acceptable pressures are commonly within the range of forty (40) psi to one hundred fifty (150) psi. However, at times certain areas within a distribution system, pressures can exceed even these relatively high values or drop below acceptable levels. Therefore, understanding what the pressures are going to be will dictate what types of materials (especially pipes) are acceptable. Pipeline strength is commonly expressed in terms of tensile and flexural strength. In addition to the internal loads expressed on pipes, there are also external loads such as traffic driving over pipes buried below ground or the amount pipe can bend or flex.

    • Tensile Strength – This is the measure of the resistance a pipe has to the longitudinal or lengthwise pull it has before it will fail. When the flow of water changes direction within a distribution system network, it can put these types of forces against the pipe. Therefore the material chosen can be critical.
    • Flexural Strength – This characteristic is the ability of a pipe to bend or flex without breaking. If the trench bedding (dirt) is not flat or if the pipe being installed needs to bend slightly as the road meanders left or right, different pipe materials have different abilities to bend or flex.

    If a pipe does not have the adequate strength, then the possibility of a water pipe (main) break can occur. If the earth shifts during an earthquake for example, a pipe may rupture in what is referred to as a shear break. If a buried pipe is unevenly supported, a beam break may occur. In addition, if the internal pressures exceed the acceptable operating pressure of a pipeline, it may also rupture. Therefore, understanding the pressures within a distribution system and the appropriate materials to use under different circumstances is an important aspect of planning and design.

    Pipe rupture under street in Los Angeles
    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Image by Los Angeles Fire Department is licensed under CC BY-ND 2.0
    wildwood oak bridge leak
    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\): Image by Mike Alvord is licensed under CC BY 4.0

    Mapping (Plans)

    Once all the planning is finished and the design criteria is selected, engineers get to work on creating design drawings (or plans) for the construction crews to use during the installation (construction) phase. These “construction plans” and accompanying specifications are not only important for the crews to properly build and install the distribution system facilities, but they are also used in the budgeting (estimating) process. Once a set of plans is complete, contractors can provide bids or cost estimates. The estimates will include the cost for materials, labor, and equipment needed for construction.

    There are various types of plans for a distribution system. These typically include piping plans, pump station plans, source of supply plans (i.e., groundwater wells), and storage facility plans (above ground storage tanks). Each set of plans will have the pertinent information for constructing and the material needed. For example, a set of pump station plans will have all the required mechanical and electrical equipment needed. These plans will detail the facility housing this equipment. The facility might be as simple as a chain-linked fence or as elaborate as a block walled building with a roof. Specifications will be detailed enough so the contractor performing the work will know what pumping equipment, valves, piping, motors, and any other items required to construct a full functioning pump station.

    After facilities are constructed, plans are updated to reflect any changes that have occurred during the construction process. Even on the most thoroughly prepared design plans, things often change when they are actually constructed. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the construction contractor to make up the plans for the engineer to modify and update. These updated plans are referred to as as-built drawings. Once the as-built drawings have been prepared, they need to be provided to the distribution operators for future reference. These maps give the distribution operators information regarding all the existing facilities for locating and operating purposes. Each water utility will have its own standards and mapping styles, but typically, there are three (3) main types of maps. These are comprehensive, sectional, and valve and hydrant maps.

    • Comprehensive Maps outline the entire distribution system. They are useful in understanding the various pressure zones, general locations of pipelines and larger facilities, and commonly outline the entire service area boundary of the utility.
    • Sectional Maps provide a more detailed picture of the distribution system on a larger scale. While these maps are similar to comprehensive maps, they have more details. For example, sectional maps will show distances between water main pipes and other buried utilities such as sewer and storm drain pipes. These maps help distribution operators identify which side of the street pipelines are located and provide the size and material as well.
    • Valve and Hydrant Maps show the precise location of distribution system valves and fire hydrants. This information is extremely important so distribution operators can quickly identify which valves need to be isolated (closed) when there is a water main break. These maps are commonly used by distribution operators for valve and hydrant maintenance activities. Many times the local fire department will request copies of these maps so they have a clearer understanding of fire hydrant locations.

    The designing of a water distribution system is an important process in order for a water utility to be able to provide their customers with a reliable and high-quality supply of water. Multiple departments are typically involved as well as outside consultants in order to properly plan, design, and construct a distribution system, which complies with all the required laws and regulations and operates in an efficient and functional manner.

    Sample Questions

    1. Which of the following is the most desirable system configuration?
      1. Arterial loop
      2. Tree
      3. Grid
      4. Depends on the system
    2. Dead-ends cause ___________.
      1. Restricted flow
      2. Stagnant water
      3. Water outages during breaks
      4. All of the above
    3. Blow offs should be installed ___________.
      1. At high points
      2. Low points
      3. Regular intervals
      4. Only on large main lines
    4. Air and vacuum valves should be installed ___________.
      1. At high points
      2. Low points
      3. Regular intervals
      4. Only on large main lines
    5. ISO stands for ___________.
      1. Insurance Services Organization
      2. Insurance Services Office
      3. Insurance Standards Organization
      4. Insurance Standards Office

    This page titled 1.4: System Design is shared under a CC BY license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Mike Alvord (ZTC Textbooks) .