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Weather wreaks havoc on water lines

Springfield, Urbana kept busy with repair work through early part of year.

Water line breaks have surged this year because of wildly fluctuating temperatures, leading to overtime expenses and costly repairs for local governments and schools.

The Springfield, Urbana and Clark County water departments, as well as the Greenon Local and Northwestern Local school districts, have all dealt with water line problems in the last month.

While decades-old water lines are a factor in many cases, the weather also plays a significant role.

“When it’s 35 (degrees) one day, 9 the next and 35 the next day it causes problems,” said Robert Munch, superintendent of the Urbana Water Division.

In Urbana, city water crews have already repaired nine water line breaks this year, Munch said.

At its current pace, Munch estimated Urbana would handle as many as 120 breaks in a single year. Last Tuesday, Urbana crews handled three breaks in a single day.

Springfield already had 17 water line leaks in 2013 as of Friday. Last year, the city had just 29 leaks for the year, in part because of the mild winter. The record for breaks in one year was 62 in 2003, Chris Moore, the city’s service director, said.

Clark County has had six water main leaks this year, said Clark County Department of Utilities Deputy Director Chuck Bauer.

Water line breaks at both Greenon and Northwestern have also caused problems for the school districts.

Moore said Springfield’s workers are ready for leaks, especially between mid-October and mid-March, because it’s “a likelihood at any given moment.”

“We’re always prepared,” Moore said. “You can’t predict it.”

Moore said its takes the city typically five hours to fix a routine water main break.

“Granted, there are some that aren’t routine,” Moore said.

Springfield’s overtime costs are paid through the water fund. The city’s water distribution department handles the day-to-day operations of all the pipes, fire hydrants and service issues. Its estimated annual budget is $1.3 million, which includes an estimated $27,000 per year in overtime costs. Last year, it spent $18,600 in overtime after budgeting for $25,000.

Bauer said the majority of the leaks in Clark County come from older water systems built in the 1950s and 1960s. They had 10 leaks in all of 2012 but average as many as 20 per year.

Bauer estimated the county spends $10,000 to $15,000 per year in overtime costs to repair water leaks, many of which happen while workers are off duty.

“It’s all related to timing,” Bauer said.

The breaks provide significant challenges to the city, taking time away from other duties crews need to perform. A single break can take anywhere from three hours to 28 hours to repair, depending on factors ranging from the severity of the break to the depth of the water line. Typically, a break takes between four and six hours to repair, Munch said.

“There are quick easy ones, and there are ones that are nightmares,” he said.

Munch said city workers had to repair water lines 72 times in 2012, a significant drop from 2011, when workers had to repair 117 breaks. The number has fluctuated over the last several years, with as few as 80 water line breaks in 2009 and as many as 133 in 2007.

Typically, most breaks occur in the spring, although the temperature has shifted several times in January this year.

“Usually March and April is when we get the strange months,” Munch said.

Northwestern Local Schools closed on Jan. 2 when a water main break occurred on the west side of the high school near the water tower.

On Jan. 23, custodians at Greenon High School discovered a water supply line in a unit ventilator in a second-floor classroom had frozen and burst, causing damage to classrooms and hallways on both floors.

“We had two veteran teachers who lost a lot of things they’ve had for a long, long time, including personal items, things that can’t be given back,” Greenon Local Schools superintendent Dan Bennett said. “We’ve lost instructional time as well. I’m very concerned about those things.”

The damage is covered by insurance and could cost approximately $30,000 to $40,000.

“A big part of it was the cold weather,” said Bennett.

Greenon High School may also be forced to take a calamity day in February to allow for repairs to be completed. The date is tentatively set for Feb. 15 for the high school only.

Residential water lines are made of different material than larger city lines, and typically do not face the same issues during fluctuations in the weather, said Joe Holtvoight, a master plumber and owner at Holt Brothers Plumbing, Heating and Cooling in Urbana. Residential water lines are smaller and are usually made of copper or plastic piping which are more flexible than the much larger ductile iron pipes often used by cities.

Although fluctuations in weather do not typically lead to breaks in residential lines, a prolonged cold snap can occasionally cause residential lines to freeze.

“If the temperatures stay low and we go through a long snap of cold or subzero temperatures, we do have a lot more business in that area,” Holtvoight said.

If you suspect a water main break in the street or near your property in Springfield, call 937-525-5800 during business hours or 937-324-7663 during non-business hours.

“If we get a call about a main break at 8 p.m., we don’t wait until the next morning,” Moore said. “We come in and fix it that night.”

For water issues in Clark County, call 937-521-2150. Urbana residents can call the city’s water division at 937-652-4335.

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