Spike in water main breaks this summer attributed to drought

Posted: Sep. 21, 2012 5:03 pm Updated: Oct. 6, 2012 12:15 am

Herald-Whig Staff Writer

Rain in recent weeks has helped reduce the number of water main leaks that have occurred in Quincy this summer.

Director of Utilities David Kent said 17 water main repairs were made in August alone. Typically one or two leaks are usually reported to the department monthly.

"I don't ever remember in all the years I worked for the city that high of a frequency," Kent said.

More leaks have been caused by the dry conditions that have been experienced across the nation.

The city's water department has two crews that deal with water mains and will make repairs as needed.

"We have one crew normally for the installation of new services, and we have one for repair and installing special items like fire hydrants or if we have to do any maintenance work in the system," Kent said.

Depending on what type of leak there is, a normal repair can take between three and six hours.

"The first priority is to make sure our customers have their drinking water and that they stay in service," he said. "So we do whatever we need to do and make sure that is accomplished."

The department budgeted $30,000 for overtime for water distribution workers in the current budget year, which started May 1. So far, the city has paid out $7,778 for 273.5 hours of overtime for water main maintenance.

"Many of those breaks come in after hours or require us to extend our work time from our normal operating eight hours to whatever it takes to get the job done," Kent said.

The drought conditions made it easier for the pipes to move and break.

"When we put a service in, we go down normally 4 feet, and until we had the first patch of rain, (the ground) was just like powder," Kent said.

This doesn't provide any flexibility for water mains in the ground. If additional stress is placed on the pipe and the ground is dry, it could cause the pipe to break.

How a main is repaired depends on the extent of the break.

"If it's something that can be repaired with a full-circle clamp, we will replace it with that," Kent said. "If we have to cut out a section of main, what we'll do is actually cut the pipe and put transition couplings on each end of it and put in a new piece of PVC."

Following the repairs, affected residents are under a 48-hour boil order. During a boil order, residents should bring water to a rolling boil for one minute, killing potential bacteria, before it is consumed.

"We take samples and test them in our state-certified laboratory to make sure they're OK," Kent said.

Test results take around 24 hours, but the 48-hour boil order allows for a second sample to be taken if necessary.

The age of the pipes can also make a difference. Older pipes are more likely to fail. Some water mains in downtown Quincy are more than 100 years old.

"Some of the mains were cast iron," Kent said. "Some of them were asbestos concrete. There are very few breaks for PVC lines."

Kent said about 300 miles of water lines are spread through the city, with many cast iron pipes still in use.

"We started putting in PVC in the late ‘70s, early ‘80s," he said. "Since the ‘80s, we've been solely with PVC unless we had a really difficult installation, like if we had rock or something like that. Then we would go to ductile iron and mechanical joint pipe."