Freezing temps: Water main breaks plague Shorewood
The extreme in weather, specifically the cold, has south lake cities busier than usual.
Winter will always make things tough for pipes, but the recent extreme cold has played tough with Shorewood’s infrastructure.
During a seven-day period, Shorewood had three water main breaks, keeping Public Works Director Larry Brown and his crews busy.
Brown says the lack of snow is pushing the frost deeper into the ground. Snow acts as an insulation blanket, keeping the frost out. This is amplified when there are periods of freeze and thaw cycles.
With an average of three water main breaks per year, Brown says the three in one week was unusual. And since each takes on a life of its own, he says, it’s been a challenge to fix the problems.
“Certainly during the investigation after a water main break, it’s a challenge but we can take steps to keep our costumers in service as long as we can,” Brown said. “Though, it could mean periodic low pressure or shut-offs.”
When a water main breaks, Brown says step one is minimize the leak by throttling or turning down the water pressure. By not shutting the water completely off, he says it allows residents to continue to have service.
The city has to call in utilities such as gas and cable to mark the location of their utilities before digging. They’re required to respond within two hours, but in extreme cold Brown says it can feel like an eternity. Because of the nature of water main breaks, Brown says more than just the main is affected.
“It can have a dramatic effect on any utilities,” Brown said. “Water always wins.”
Once a leak is suspected, a leak locator is called in, “very sophisticated equipment.”
This is critical Brown says because a leak can surface blocks from the origin of the leak.
After the leak is located, he says it’s just a “good ol’ fashioned plumbing problem.” A repair clamp is attached and when crews are finished, the roadway is rebuilt.
Because of the specialty work that’s required, a water main break can average a price tag of $2,000 to $4,000.
Brown encourages people not to drive through construction sites if a main does break.
Communities surrounding Shorewood seem to have dodged a bullet.
Dave Wisdorf, Excelsior Public Works Supt., says his city has not had one yet. Yet, going by statistics, the city will experience one break in the course of a year. If cold weather continues and the area experiencemore freeze and thaw cycles the frost will eventually reach pipes buried seven to eight feet below the ground.
Wisdorf says his crews are ready for anything, given that this is Minnesota and it is February.
“That’s just the way it is with this climate,” he said.
Greenwood and Deephaven have faired well, too, says City Administrator Dana Young. The two cities, which have joint management, have only experienced some minor issues making sure the streets are clean due to the icy conditions that followed a rain-freeze event.
Using more salt and sand than usual this year, Young says it makes up for last year when less than average was used.
“It is winter, it always seem to catch up with you,” Young said.
All about weather
Because the infrastructure is at the mercy of the weather, winters are typically when things start to break.
“Basically the gist of what happens is the longer the cold temperatues the deeper the frost layer goes into the soil,” said Jim Keeney, Weather Program Manager for the Central Region of the National Weather Service. “It then starts impacting pipes, and as the ground shifts the pipes can crack and burst.”
Along with lack of snow, cold and windy conditions further dry out the soil allowing it to shift easier. Keeney also says as infrastructure ages across the country, breaks are can become more common during summer months when the soils is very hot.
That’s what happened in Tonka Bay last summer when three mains broke says Public Works Director Greg Kluver.
Kluver says the age of the pipe has a lot to do with how they hold up as well as the condition of the soil in which the pipes are placed.
Because most pipes are cast iron, Kluver says the brittle and soft nature means they break easier. He said that most pipes are more than 40 years old in Tonka Bay.
John Eise, Climate Services Program Manager with the National Weather Service, says despite the extremes the past few years, nothing too unusual climactically is happening.
The weather diversity is more tied to variations in weather than climate, Eise says. The number of periods of extreme temperature – hot and cold – since the 1800s are more common than some might think.
The lowest temperature recorded since the 1880s was -41 degrees recorded in St. Paul in January 1888. Since records have been kept, there have been 157 days in January with swings of 40 degrees or more in the course of a 24-hour period, and there is on average a temperature swing of at least 30 degrees or more each January averaged over the month.
Because weather varies and climate is more of a long-term trend, Eise describes it like walking a dog. The person walking the dog is climate because they form a trend of going from A to B, whereas the dog often is going to be walking from right to left in a more sporadic manner.