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Frigid weather takes toll on water lines

When the mercury plummets, it spells trouble for the Halifax County Service Authority (HCSA) in the form of water main breaks.
“The water main failures that we usually see happen during the freeze cycle and on the thaw cycle during a cold front that is extreme as the one we presently are experiencing,” said Mark Estes, HCSA director of operations.

“Most of our water main failures occur because of ground shifts and earth movements during the freeze/thaw cycle,” he said. “The geology of this area has shrink and swell clay soils that are susceptible to ground moisture. Most of our failures occur during the thaw cycle.”

The recent period of extremely cold temperatures has resulted in several water main breaks in South Boston.

“Within the past seven days we have had a six-inch water main failure on South Avenue near Haskins Street, a 10-inch water main at the end of Vaughan Street near the entrance to the former J.P. Stevens property, a six-inch water main on Easley Street between Penick Avenue and Broad Street and a two-inch galvanized water line serving the C.H. Friend School property,” Estes said Wednesday.

Cast iron was the dominant material used in the older sections of the water system and in the towns because there was no other material used prior to 1950, according to Estes.

“Cast iron is somewhat brittle because it is iron and carbon similar to a cast iron fire grate or stove,” he explained. “We have water mains that are made of PVC, ductile iron, cast iron and AC (cement blend).

“PVC and ductile iron are the most recent materials of construction and are designed to incorporate ‘deflection’ which allows for the movement of the earth during this type of weather,” Estes said. “Ductile iron is alloyed with steel to give it the ability to stretch and not break.”

Total water loss for the recent water main breaks has been estimated at just under 200,000 gallons, Estes said. “The amount of water lost includes the water needed to flush and disinfect the break area and to purge the system of air and dissolved iron and color from the area,” he said.

“A water break in one area can actually affect the water quality for several blocks,” Estes said. “It is important that our customers let us know when they are experiencing low pressure and discolored water so that we may address your area by flushing the system to remove any carry-over from a water main failure.”

Estes said the HCSA gets numerous calls where homes lost water due to service lines freezing on the homeowner’s property. “Unfortunately, that is something we cannot control or alleviate for the customer,” he explained.

The operations director said a water main failure can affect only one home or can affect several homes or businesses. “Once a break is discovered, our first step is to notify all of the utility operators within the area to mark and locate their facilities so that we do not damage or interrupt other services such as cable, Internet, telephone and sewer services,” Estes said.

“This process will take up to three hours, and we intentionally allow the water to continue to leak, while we wait to begin the repairs,” he said. “This step is critical in that it keeps a positive pressure on the system to prevent any contaminants from entering back into the area of the break.

“In order to isolate the break, we close the valves that serve the affected area,” he continued. “In the older sections of town the valves may be several blocks apart, so in a case such as this, many homes may be without water for several hours.”

Estes explained it is important for water customers to notify the HCSA when they see a significant volume of water at the curb or in the middle of the street.

“This is a good indication that a water main or water service line has ruptured, and we need to investigate to find the source of the flow,” he said. “In a severe cold weather cycle, we also will call the area public works or street department to assist us with applying abrasives to the area to cover the ice that quickly forms and becomes a traffic hazard.

“Should you notice a loss of water pressure, have discolored water or actually see what appears to be a possible leak, you may call our 24-hour emergency number at 222-7798 to reach our on-call technician,” Estes said. “You also may call the HCSA Operations Division at 575-4245 or our main office at 476-4272.”