SHERMAN OAKS - When the Northridge earthquake slammed Los Angeles two decades ago, it shattered more than 1,000 underground water lines.
Residents and firefighters went without essential water for up to one week - and the pipes took years to fully fix at a cost of $41 million.
Now Los Angeles Department of Water and Power engineers think they may have found a seismic water pipe solution - in Japan. In Sherman Oaks on Thursday, the DWP began testing special pipe from Kubota Corp. unbroken during decades of mega quakes.
If successful, the pipe may be prototype for a leak-free Los Angeles.
"In 40 years, this pipe - in Japan only - there has never been a break, not even a leak," said Craig Davis, the DWP's earthquake engineer.
Underneath the city, more than 7,000 miles of iron pipe delivers water to some 4 million people. But during the region's temblors, engineers say, such subterranean lines are susceptible to costly breaks and leaks.
Enter the Osaka-based Kibota Corp., which devised an interlocking system of so-called earthquake resistant joint ductile iron pipe.
Like its American water line cousins, its lengths bolt together via a rubber flange. But unlike U.S. pipe, its zinc-coated lengths form an interlinking system that will rotate and flex - and not pull apart under pressure.
Not during the magnitude-7 Kobe earthquake of 1995. And not during the mag-9 earthquake and tsunami two years ago off eastern Japan.
"It's good stuff - never failed in Japan, in any earthquake in 40 years," said Satoshi Suenaga, a Kubota engineer admiring the company's first installation outside his country. "This'll be good for you, good for Los Angeles, and a good countermeasure against earthquakes."
With a nearly 50-percent chance of a 7.5-magnitude shaker expected to hit L.A. in the next 30 years, it's the stuff that makes engineers and pipefitters giddy.
"We're ready," said DWP Supervisor Douglas Land, overseeing a handpicked crew laying 1,700 feet of Kubota pipe on Contour Drive, in the hills south of Ventura Boulevard. "Wrap it up!"
With that, seven DWP and Kubota pipefitters standing in a waist-high trench bolted together the miracle pipe.
Installed at a cost of $108,000, the Sherman Oaks pilot project was aimed as a training exercise in difficult terrain. A second pilot installation of the break-free pipe will be soon sunk in streets surrounding Northridge Hospital and Medical Center.
If all goes well, DWP officials said, more Kubota pipe will be laid in fault-prone and erosion zones near the harbor, west Los Angeles and downtown.
To bring down the cost - now roughly three times that of U.S. iron ductile pipe - Kubota Corp. hopes to find a local manufacturer and distributor.
"We're rockin,' it's gonna be good," said the gold-helmeted DWP supervisor, while his crew demonstrates how far the 15-foot Japanese pipes can bend. "Look, flexibility, unlike ours.
"You can make a big Hula Hoop - for a big guy."