Water main breaks

Water bubbling up through the pavement is a pretty sure sign that there’s a broken pipe below the street, and it’s a more common problem in the winter months.

Residents in Manson were left without any water Thursday after three water mains broke. Water service was restored, but residents were advised to boil the water before drinking it.

Broken water mains aren’t unique to that Calhoun County community.

During this frigid winter, there have been more water main breaks in Fort Dodge than in previous years, according to Greg Koch, the city’s public works director. He attributes the increase to the unusually cold weather.

Between Jan. 1 and Friday afternoon, there have been 15 water main breaks, he said.

Koch said that in the past few years , there have been between seven and 11 water main breaks in January and February.

He said the ground shifts as it freezes.

”Soils move around and can crack a weak spot in a pipe,” he said.

Julie Sievers, an environmental specialist with the Iowa Department of Natural Resources, attributed the rash of water main breaks throughout the area to the depth of the frost and the lack of snow on the ground.

”Snow acts as insulation and keeps frost from going as deep,” she said.

The city isn’t responsible for fixing all broken water pipes. The city repairs the water mains, but fixing the pipes between the water mains and the houses is the responsibility of the property owners, Koch said.

While water coming to the surface means there’s a broken pipe, that pipe isn’t necessarily right beneath the spot where the water is coming up. Koch said sometimes a private contractor is called in to use special tools to find the leak.

Once a leak is pinpointed, all the surrounding utility lines must be marked so that they aren’t damaged in the process of fixing the water pipe. Representatives of MidAmerican Energy, Mediacom and Frontier Communications are summoned to the site to mark the locations of their company’s pipes and cables.

Once everything is marked, city crews start the repair process by breaking the pavement and digging down to the pipe. They start with a backhoe and end up standing in the trench scooping away the last of the soil with shovels.

”Sometimes the water mains don’t shut off the best, and water is shooting up in your face,” said Brent Sandholm, the water utilities operations manager in the Public Works Department.

After the damaged pipe is exposed, crews have two options. Sandholm said circular clamps ranging in diameter from 2 inches to 30 inches are often placed over the leak. The clamps are tightened with impact wrenches that are similar to the ones used to turn lug nuts on wheels, he said.

If a rupture in a pipe is too long to be sealed with a clamp, the crew will have to cut out the damaged piece and replace it with a new section.

Sandholm said the process of fixing a water main break typically takes about six hours. He said four workers are usually assigned to a repair job.

Water main breaks, he said, seem to occur often at night and in bad weather.

”Usually, it’s not very good conditions when we’re out there,” he said.

The money to pay for fixing a water main break comes from the budget line items for supplies and often, employee overtime. Koch said the city is presently in no danger of exceeding its budget in those categories.