Today we’re going to look at a massive plumbing FAIL and hope that people can learn from a billion dollar mistake. It’s relatively common knowledge among plumbers that pipe + water + freezing = big paycheck @ 3am. When water freezes inside a pipe, it starts to expand outwards, and eventually the ice crystals will force themselves into a rigid shape, which will push outwards on the pipe like a microscopic bottle jack. Pipes are pretty rigid, but water doesn’t compress well and ice doesn’t really squeeze down either. It’s going to take on the shape it wants to take. The pipe bursts and things get expensive.
Russia’s Plumbing Problem
The USSR, the Soviet Union, was apparently unaware of these issues in physics when building their only aircraft carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov. It’s been reported that the onboard plumbing was not weather proofed. When the ship entered sub-freezing environments, it was possible for pipes to freeze and burst. This can be a massive issue for a combat vessel. You don’t want to be fighting your own cooling systems, drinking water, or risking flooding your ship with your own water supply while you’re fighting off an attacker. That makes for a really bad day.
Repairing this isn’t a small task either. The Kuznetsov is an aircraft carrier. It’s about as long as three football feels end to end, with change left over. It weighs 55,000 tons. There’s room for a crew of nearly 1700. The thing is a city in a metal box. To fix the plumbing is going to be a planning and logisticial nightmare. There are miles of wire in the average house and maybe a decent half mile of piping or more. A ship this big is going to have hundreds, maybe thousands of miles of pipe when stacked end to end.
Designers will have to layout a new plumbing system. Ship yard workers will have to remove and replace every single pipe in the existing system. Holes in the metal bulkheads will need to be enlarged to accommodate insulated or heated piping. New wiring and controls will need to be added for heating elements. It’s going to be hundreds of millions of dollars by Russia’s estimates, and sitting here in the office, we bet it’ll be another zero in there, billions before the whole thing is actually fixed.
Weatherproof Your Facility
The lesson to take away from this is to always build your facility for weather twice as bad as the worst you’ll ever put it through. Weather proof your piping, include flood mitigations, and plan for the worst. When the USSR built their carrier, they were probably thinking they’d park it down in Cuba and lob a few shells off the Florida coast on training exercises. The ship was meant to project power at their enemy, the US, in warmer weather than the soviet homeland. They didn’t need weather proof piping then, but they do now.
If your facility is facing more extreme weather of late, colder winters than you initially planned on or possible power outtages during major storms, it would pay to start some small upgrades. The Russians can only really work on their carrier in big, multi-year sprints. Your facility can be worked on piecemeal, replacing small bits and pieces at your convenience and at lower prices than a facility-wide sprint.