Waterlines hit hard by extreme weather
January 10, 2014 11:00 AM
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The blast of arctic cold temperatures has subsided, but not so much the effects of the so-called “polar vortex” weather system that kept an icy grip on the region earlier this week.

Fire officials and Pennsylvania-American Water Co., whose people were constantly on the run in response to reports of water pipes that froze and burst, say their work isn’t finished.

With the thaw will come the discovery of hidden water system problems that lay dormant, frozen solid by subzero temperatures that persisted for 30 hours or more from Monday through Wednesday.

“Be vigilant as the temperature increases and don’t ignore the sound of running water,” the Indiana Fire Association ominously posted on Facebook this week.

The unseen and unexpected give good cause for anxiety.

With the coldest temperatures in 20 years, “we’re freezing stuff that we don’t normally freeze,” said Indiana Fire Chief Scott Schuller. Pipes running along exterior walls in homes and underground, which normally aren’t threatened in average Indiana County winters, have been jeopardized this week.

“Now they’re causing problems because they’ve been frozen. … Now that we’re thawing out, the frozen water is beginning to leak and the pressure behind them is causing havoc,” Schuller said.

The worst of the burst lines, where water froze and expanded enough to split even copper and iron pipes, sent water cascading onto floors and basements in buildings in many communities. Black Lick and neighboring fire departments responded to several calls to mop up after lines broke in an apartment complex along Wyoming Drive. Water leaks prompted other calls for help in the Indiana, Homer City and Center Township areas.

Schuller recommended that homeowners, if they have not already, should inspect the pipes they can see and check the areas where pipes are hidden — including their lawns and driveways.

The water company had the same advice.

And both urged homeowners to report trouble as soon as they spot it.

“Any time a customer has a concern about their service or about things they may see in their neighborhood that are unusual, please call us,” said Josephine Posti, an external affairs specialist for Pennsylvania-American. “If it is an unusual trickle of water, whether it’s on the road or in someone’s yard, and it’s something you don’t regularly see — call us and we’ll send somebody out to take a look at it.”

Posti said the water company is responsible for main pipelines, but property owners are responsible for the costs of fixing service lines, the pipes that carry water from the mains into buildings.

“This is a good opportunity for folks to recheck their homes and make sure that they know where their main shutoff valve is, in case they have a pipe burst inside the home and need to shut the water off quickly,” Posti said. “They also might want to check any outdoor spigots they have, where they may have a hose that is still connected. Shut off the valve to that spigot inside the house, and then drain it so there is no water accumulating in the spigot.”

Along with the persistent deep freeze, a factor in the spate of water system problems has been the dramatic changes in temperatures.

Sunday at midnight, the temperature in Indiana was 50 degrees. In 24 hours, it was 0 or colder. The rapid drop alone was bad for pipes.

“Any time you have a big fluctuation in temperature, whether its from very cold going to very warm, like predicted this weekend, that can put additional stress on the underground pipes,” Posti said.

“And when the pipes are very old in the distribution system, that freeze-thaw cycle and dramatic shift in temperature can put stress on pipes.”

The issue is more than whether pipes are not buried below the frost line, officials said. Earth tends to shift in unpredictable ways, in both cold and warm weather, and that adds to the stress that water pipes bear.

Posti said the number of emergency calls to fix broken waterlines was no greater than normal this week, and she attributed that to Pennsylvania-American’s “aggressive, pro-active” waterline replacement program.

The company spent $40 million last year on replacing its oldest pipes, she said.

No place is immune to trouble. Water problems cropped up in buildings of all kinds in the Indiana area, including homes, businesses and two four-story structures, Schuller said.

“So we’re concerned that we’re going to get more and more of these,” Schuller said. “If you hear the sound of running water, it should alert you. Don’t say, ‘hey, it’s just the commode running and it will stop in a couple of minutes.’ You might very well find that you’ve got a larger problem.

“And most people know that you can shut your water off pretty quickly, but if you don’t, a lot of water can build up fast.”

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