Water Main Breaks Keep Marshfield Utilities Busy During Winter Months

Water Main Breaks More Frequent During Freezing Temperatures

Colder temperatures means water freezing, which leads to challenges for Marshfield Utilities in the form of water main breaks. A water main break means there is some sort of failure of the existing water distribution piping to contain water. On average, Marshfield has about 35 breaks a year. During the bitter cold winter of 2013 and 2014, when the cold and frost depths in Marshfield were more than eight feet deep in places, there were 77 breaks.

This week alone, Marshfield Utilities has responded to three main breaks: one on Palmetto near 19th Street, one on 14th Street near Tamarack, and one on Shawano near Laird.

“It has been a busy week,” said John W. Richmond, PE Water Manager of Marshfield Utilities, who explained that a main break can happen for several reasons.

“The most notable cause is when the ground starts to freeze in fall/winter or thaw in the spring,” he said. “These events drastically change the forces on the pipe in the vertical direction.”

Water main breaks can also occur if a pipe is corroded or has holes, which is sometimes accelerated by acidic soils.

“When we find areas like this, we attach a Magnesium bag on the pipe so the acidic soil attacks the magnesium rather than the iron pipe,” said Richmond. “A third cause of water main breaks is what is called ‘water hammer’. Water hammer occurs when water moving in one direction with excessive speed is stopped or forced to change direction very quickly. This force of water can be very strong and will find the weak points of a pipe and the stresses will break the pipe.”

This can happen due to opening or closing a hydrant too quickly, by opening or closing a large interior piping valve that has a large amount of water flowing through it, or by having a check valve fail on piping that is moving a large amount of water.

Whatever the cause of the break, Marshfield Utilities has several methods to repair the pipes safely and efficiently.

“The most popular way for us to fix pipe failure is to attach what is called a main break sleeve,” said Richmond. “These sleeves are a large stainless steel clamps that are rubber coated on the pipe side of the clamp. This sleeve is wrapped around the pipe and tightened with multiple stainless steel bolts. If needed, we also can cut out the old pipe that is failing and install new section of pipe in the same area and reattach with a gasket joint on each connection point. Both methods require a good size excavation pit to complete the fix.”

On average, it costs the Utility about $5,000 a main break between labor costs, materials, and street repair/restoration, and it takes around 6 to 8 hours to fix.
“Some main breaks are quicker and cheaper and some are more intense, more costly and more time consuming,” said Richmond. “The most obvious reason for length of time is the amount of frost in the ground at the time. The deeper the frost, the harder the excavation can be.”

Richmond notes that there are times during a water main repair that passersby might see a crew that appears to be idle, however this is not the case and could be due to several different scenarios.

“One is that they just loaded a truck full of excavated waste material that cannot be put back in the trench upon completion and that truck has to go dump that load and needs to return before more excavation can continue,” explained Richmond. “A second reason could be that the Diggers Hotline locator needs either to arrive and locate all utilities before excavation can begin or the crew has called the locator to return to either verify a locate or relocate for one reason or another and they do not feel safe to dig until the relocate has been done.”

Richmond said that staff have been reprimanded by residents for the above mentioned reasons, which isn’t fair to the crew working hard to fix the break.

“Keep in mind that when these breaks need to be fixed late at night or on the weekend the guys want to get done and be home where it is warm and dry as much as you do, they don’t want to just sit around,” said Richmond.

Marshfield Utilities is actively seeking and implementing proactive methods to help prevent main breaks.

“This past year we only had 27 breaks. The last four years the Utility has completed pipe replacements or pipe lining in some of our statistically highest areas of main breaks,” said Richmond. “I relate last year’s main break numbers as a direct reflection of those efforts.”

Richmond also shared what residents should be aware of that might indicate a water main break.

“If you see water running on the street or in the ditch when it is not raining or it is not during a heavy snow melt day there is a good chance there might be a main break or a service leak in your area,” said Richmond. “In times of drought, if you notice a patch of grass that is near your water service or near the street where the water main is and that area is much more lush and green compared to the rest of the area, that is also a sign of a possible leak.”

If you suspect a water main break, contact the Utility at 715-387-1195 and say that you would like to report a possible main break and give them the location. They in turn will contact one of their Water System Operation Specialists and they will come check it out.

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