Documentary History of American Water-works

Introduction Historical Background Chronology Geography Biography Technology Ownership and Financing General Bibliography

Technology Electrolysis

Electrolysis in American Waterworks

Electrolysis from electric trolley systems caused damage to metal gas and water pipes in many cities.  Horse Railroads had become popular in the United States since the first one began operating in New York City in 1832.  With the advent of central station electricity in the early 1880s several inventors worked to apply this motive source to street cars.  The first successful electric street car system began service in Richmond, Virginia in early 1888 using a direct current motor invented by Frank L. Sprague that used a trolley that received power from an overhead wire to power to the street car motor.  Although some street cars used a double-trolley arrangement where two overhead wires were used to supply the positive current and return the negative current to the generator, single-trolley systems were much more common and used a combination of rails and earth grounds to return the current to the generator.  Unfortunately, the currents would seek the route of lowest resistance, which was often underground gas and water pipes in the vicinity of the rail lines.  In many cities, the local water works allowed the ground wire to be connected directly to their pipes, as no one understood the damage this would cause to the pipe itself.  Some gas and water works noticed the damaged pipes very quickly, but it took some time to determine what was happening.  By 1894, several engineers who had studied the corrosion issue demonstrated that electrolysis from the return current was responsible for the damage to pipes.  Municipally-owned water works could address the problem by enforcing existing ordinances or passing new ones that forced the trolley companies to install complete grounding circuits, but private water companies were usually forced to seek redress in the courts, which took time and money. 

"Electrolysis troubles and their remedies," by Albert F. Ganz, Water and Sewage Works, 52:176 (April, 1917)

1892 First Report of the Second Board of Commissioners of Electrical Subways in the City of Brooklyn, December 31, 1892
Page 230:  Another form of destructive agency seems to have manifested itself in cities where trolley lines have been in operation for some time.  The nature of the injurious action is not fully determines, but it has been described as electrolytic which would imply the setting up up of local earth currents, whose origin is in the current discharged to earth by the trolley system.  It is yet too early in our experience wit this system to expect any manifestation of the above mentioned kind in Brooklyn.  The injury has been confined to limited areas, and will probably be prevented as soon as the nature of the cause is known.

1893 "Electricity Affects Water Pipes," Chicago Tribune, April 30, 1893, Page 34.

1893 "Electrolysis of Water Pipes," Chicago Tribune, June 13, 1893, Page 4. | Part 2 |

1893 "Electrolysis," by Peter Milne, Proceedings of the Annual Convention of the American Water Works Association 13:153-162 (September 5-9, 1893)

1894 Second Report of the Second Board of Commissioners of Electrical Subways in the City of Brooklyn, December 15, 1893
Pages 255-271: Special Report on corrosion of water pipes, gas pipes and telephone cables, January 25, 1894.

1894 "Trolley Dangers," Evening Star (Washington, D. C.), February 28, 1894, Page 3.
Electrician J.H. Vail on the Trolley.

1894 "The Importance of Complete Metallic Circuit for Electric Railways," by J. H. Vail, Read February 27, 1894, Proceedings of the Annual Convention of the National Electric Light Association 17:102-134 (March 1894)

1894 "Electrolysis of Underground Pipes in Brooklyn," Street Railway Journal 10:169 (March, 1894)

1894 "The Importance of Complete Metallic Circuit for Electric Railways," by J. H. Vail, Read before the National Electric Light Association at its seventeenth convention held at Washington, D. C., February 27, 28 and March 1, 1894.  Street Railway Journal 10:199-204 (March, 1894)

1894 "Electrolytic Action of the Return Current on Electric Railways," Electrical Review 24:143 (March 21, 1894)
The experience of Brooklyn is not notably different from that of Boston and Cambridge, Mass., Milwaukee, Wis., Columbus, O., Indianapolis, Ind., and Hamilton, Ont.

1894 "Destructive Effects of Electrical Currents on Subterranean Metal Pipes," by Isaiah H. Farnham, Transactions of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers 11:191-230 (April 18, 1894)

1894 "The Agitation of the Question of Electrolytic Action," Street Railway Journal 10(5):298 (May, 1894)
The Agitation of the Question of Electrolytic Action as an agent in the deterioration of water and gas pipes and metallic cable coverings is working both to the advantage and disadvantage of electric street railway companies. It is of advantage so far as it induces the employment of an adequate return conductor, for this results in the saving of power, but when it leads to the institution of claims for damage on the part of the owners of these substructures it causes direct loss and militates against the present method of electric traction. That water and gas pipes deteriorate rapidly in certain cities and in certain soils is admitted, but that any great damage has resulted in any particular case by the action set up by the street railway current is a question that may require very thorough investigation to settle. Pipes deteriorate in cities where there are no electric railways, and were also known to fail from corrosion in many places before the advent of electric railways. Time and the character of the soil are features in every case that must be considered in studying the cause of failure, and in many cases these features are probably more responsible for pipe deterioration than the current. The danger is not one half so great as the alarm might lead people to suppose.

1894 "Destructive Effects of Electrical Currents on Subterranean Metal Pipes," by Isaiah H. Farnham, Street Railway Journal 10(5):331-332 (May, 1894)

1894 "Electrolysis of Water Pipes," Scientific American 70(21):328 (May 26, 1894)

1894 "Complete Metallic Circuits for Electric Railroads," by J. H. Vail, Cassier's Magasine 6:161-175  (June 1894)

1894 "Cincinnati and its Street Railways," Street Railway Journal 10(7):413-423 (July, 1894)
Page 414:  The causes that originally led up to the adoption of the double trolley in Cincinnati, were that after thoroughly investigating the subject, the management was convinced of its superiority; and second, the fact that most of the business streets of the city had recently been paved with granite blocks and asphalt, and a city ordinance prevented the tearing up of the streets for the repairing of tracks, or renewing of water pipes for five years, so that in a measure it became an agreeable necessity for the Cincinnati Street Railway Company to employ the double trolley. The company is now congratulating itself on the fact that it is able to operate so successfully with the two wires, and is not uneasy over the question of the destruction of water and gas pipes by electrolytic action, which is now disturbing some of the street railway companies of the country.
The cost of the installation for double overhead construction is somewhat more than that for the ground return, where the rails alone are depended upon, but not more than where a good return ground wire is provided. It is necessary, of course, to provide that the feed wires on both arms of the circuit balance.

1894 "The Corrosion of Iron Pipes by the Action of Electric Railway Currents," Street Railway Journal 10(9):566-568 (September, 1894)

1894 "The Destruction of Water Pipes," Street Railway Journal 10(9):370-371 (September, 1894)

1894 "Destruction of Underground Pipes by Electric Currents," Municipal Engineering 7(3):133-135 (September, 1894)
I. H. Farnham, of Boston, was the first person to call the public's attention to the destructive effects upon gas and water mains of electricity diffused through the ground.

1895 "How to prevent electrolysis of gas and water pipes," by Udo Hesse, Municipal Engineering 8(4):178-181 (April, 1895)
Saginaw, Michigan. The presence of this destructive agent became apparent soon after the electric cars were put in operation, in the summer of 1889.

1895 Facts about Pipe, by Edmund Cogswell Convers, July 1, 1895.
Pages 794-828: Electrolysis

1896 "Prevention of Electrolysis," Municipal Engineering 11(1):31-32 (July, 1896)

1896 "Electrolysis of Water Pipes," Municipal Engineering 11(3):172 (September, 1896)

1896 "Electrolysis Suit of Omaha Water Company," Municipal Engineering 11(5):189 (November, 1896)

1896 "Destruction of Water Pipes by Electrolysis," Municipal Engineering 11():310- (, 1896)

1897 "Damaging Effects of Electrolysis on Water Mains in Salt Lake City," by F. C. Kelsey, Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the American Water Works Association :157-167 (June 1897)

1897 "Electrolysis in Chicago," Municipal Engineering 13(3):238 (October, 1897)
1n a report to Commissioner McGann of Chicago, City Electrician Ellicott declares that electrolysis threatens all the city's water pipes, and that within a few years new water mains will have to be laid in all the streets occupied by trolley lines, which would involve an expense of hundreds of thousands of dollars. 1nvestigations made recently on several south side streets revealed the fact that nearly all the water mains had been honeycombed by the electric current escaping from the rails of the trolley lines. 1n all ordinances passed by the city council for trolley franchises there is a provision requiring the construction of a metallic return circuit, by which it is expected the pipes will be relieved from this current. Commissioner McGann is convinced, however, that the street railway companies have been disregarding this feature of their ordinances.

1898 "Electrolysis in the District of Columbia," February 10, 1898

1898 Engineering News 39:144 (March 3, 1898)
Atlanta electrolysis ordinance

1898 " Reports on investigation of electrolysis as affecting the water pipes : submitted to the Trustees of Water Works, Dayton, Ohio," by Harold P Brown, Water and Gas Review 9(4):16 (October, 1898) | Part 2 |

1898 "Ravages of Electrolysis in Dayton," Municipal Engineering 15(4):251 (October, 1898)

1898 "An Electrical Survey in the Borough of Manhattan, New York City Showing Results of Stray Current Measurements Between Electric Railways, Underground Pipes, Etc., also Results of Tests on the Brooklyn Bridge," by A. A. Knudson, Transactions of the American Institute of Electrical Engineers 15:613-631 (October 26, 1898)

1898 "Electrolysis in Logansport," Municipal Engineering 15(5):323 (November, 1898)

1899 "Report Made to the National Board of Fire Underwriters on the Dangers of Elecrolysis," Water and Gas Review 9(8):30 (February, 1899)

1899 "Electrolysis," Fire and Water 26(26):427 (December 23, 1899) | Part 2 26(27):432 (December 30, 1899) |
A paper on “Electrolysis,” read last fall before the convention of the Central States Water Works association at Cincinnati, Ohio. Mr. F. A. W. Davis, vice-president of the water works at Indianapolis

1900 Electrolysis, [probably by F. A. W. Davis of the Indianapolis Water Company, as same pictures are used in the above article]
Photos of damage caused to pipes in various cities.

1900 "The Prevention of Electrolysis," by Alton D. Adams, Municipal Engineering 18(1):1- (January 1900)

1900 "Electrolysis of Underground Metal Structures," Proceedings of the Annual Convention of the American Water Works Association 20:121-135, 155-158 (May 15-18, 1900) 

1900 The Law of Electric Wires in Streets and Highways, by Edward Quinton Keasbey, Second Edition, Revised and Enlarged

1901 "Trolley Wires Blamed for Damages to Pipes," Water and Gas Review 11(12):6-10 (June 1901)

1901 "The Peoria Water Company Wins the Electrolysis Case," Street Railway Journal 17(25):722-725 (June 22, 1901)

1901 "The Peoria Water Company Wins the Electrolysis Case," Street Railway Journal 18:65-69 (July, 1901)

1901 "A Decision in the Peoria Electrolysis Case," Municipal Engineering 21(1):34 (July, 1901)

1901 "Report of the City Engineer to the Commissioner of Public Works Relating to an Investigation of Electrolysis in the Water Pipe System of the City of Rochester, N.Y.," August 1, 1901, Annual Report of the Department of Public Works

1902 "Dayton's Electrolysis Case Decided," Municipal Engineering 22(5):322-324 (May, 1902)

1906 Report of Committee on Electrolysis, American Gas Light Association

1907 "Articles on Electrolysis," Municipal Engineering 32(1):19-20 (January, 1907)

1909 "Electrolysis in Peoria's Water Mains," Municipal Journal and Engineer 27(3):94 (July 21, 1909)

1909 Report on electrolysis, by Winfield Scott Williams; Civic League of San Francisco. Committee on Supervision of Public Improvements and Expenditures, October, 1909 | also here |

1910 Electrolysis in the city of Winnipeg, by L. A. Herdt, March 1910 | also here |

1910 Peoria Waterworks Co. v. Peoria Railway Co., 181 Fed. 990, September 30, 1910, Circuit Court, Northern District of Illinois

1911 Electrolysis of Water Pipes in the City of Chicago, July 1911

1911 The Law Relating to Conflicting Uses of Electricity and Electrolysis, by George Feairheller Deiser
Chapter IX.  The Law Relating to Electrolysis

1913 Special Studies in Electrolysis Mitigation, Part 1

1914 Surface Insulation of Pipes as a Means of Preventing Electrolysis

1915 Electrolysis and Its Mitigation

1916 A Preliminary Report Prepared for Submission to Its Principals, by American committee on electrolysis

1917 "Electrolysis troubles and their remedies," by Albert F. Ganz, Water and Sewage Works, 52:174-179 (April, 1917)

1919 Combined Reports Upon Five Milwaukee Electrolysis Surveys for Railroad Commission of Wisconsin and the City of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, by Various Representatives: September 29, 1910 to June 7, 1919

1921 Report of the American Committee on Electrolysis

© 2018 Morris A. Pierce