Man who takes hot water away

Summer : Mikhail Lapir sees to it that residents for Moscow take a lot of cold showers when the weather heats up, because maintenance must be done on pipes.

June 23, 2000|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

MOSCOW - In the imagination, he works in a steam-filled room of hissing pipes, a giant wrench in his hand, and he spends his days in fiendish enjoyment, turning off monster-size valves, depriving Muscovites of hot water for weeks at a time.

In reality, Mikhail Lapir works in an enormous but quiet office in the center of the city, a telephone in hand, and he spends his days in quiet regret, depriving Muscovites of hot water for weeks at a time.

"Of course, it would be much better if we could work faster," Lapir says, "but you cannot always live with a rainbow overhead."

Every summer, 149 million people across this vast country put up with the loss of hot water for up to a month. They are hostage to a vestige of the collective society, a central hot water system.

In Moscow, Lapir is in charge of the energy department, responsible for electricity, heat, street lights - and hot water. One day this week, he was feeling reasonably satisfied with himself.

Only 3.5 million Muscovites had no hot water.

In Moscow, as in every Russian city, the hot water is turned off every summer so that the steel pipes, which get rusty, can be examined and replaced if leaking. The water goes off and on district by district, usually starting in May and ending in September.

Residents are notified by an announcement put on the door of their building, a piece of paper that no matter how inevitable strikes with the impact of a cold shower.

"I don't like it at all," says Regina Chertova, 68, spending her second week without hot water. "You cannot wash yourself properly. Life becomes uneasy. And I'm sure they will do it always. There is no hope we will have hot water all year round."

Lapir agrees. "We can put cosmonauts in space," he says, "but we can't keep the hot water flowing. There are some everyday problems that are more complicated than space flight."

Moscow began building its heating and hot-water system in 1924, he says, and developed much of it in the 1950s. Most of the hot water comes from power stations producing electricity. Steam used to run electricity-producing turbines is shunted off to heat water. That water is piped throughout the city, heating radiators in winter and the water in kitchen and bathroom faucets. Some of the water travels as much as 22 miles between source and destination.

"The system is very efficient," Lapir says. "The combination of hot water and electricity makes minimum use of energy. It makes it cheaper for us to produce."

At the same time, the system is a maintenance nightmare. Moscow has about 10,000 miles of water pipes underground, thousands of pieces ready to leak at any time.

"First we check the pipes with high pressure," Lapir says. "If that goes successfully, thank God. But usually it doesn't. Then we have to find the weak spots, which is very difficult.

"It's a colossal amount of work. How many pipes? Too many for a calculator. It's probably four times to the moon and back," he says.

"Every summer, we replace 400 miles of pipe. It's an unbelievable amount of work, not only cutting off a piece of pipe and replacing it, but so much digging."

Cold water is delivered through a different system. When pipes leak, sections can be shut off and repaired quickly. But the hot water comes through at temperatures up to the boiling point, requiring the section to be cooled.

Regulations require that the hot water in Moscow be shut off for no more than 23 days. Someday, Lapir hopes to improve on that.

"I dream that someday we won't have to switch it off for so long," he says.

He knows he doesn't have a lot of time. Next month, he turns 87.

"I look with horror to the day when I will have to leave this job," he says, denying that providing heat, hot water and electricity to a city of 11 million people is a hard job. "Working hard? Look, here I am, sitting in a chair, talking. What kind of work is that?"

Lapir supervises a department of 250,000, but his thorniest problem is his neighbors. They think that because a big boss lives in their building, they should have hot water all the time.

Instead, the hot water in Lapir's building recently returned - after the maximum 23 days.

Lapir has stopped trying to explain the necessity of turning off the water. People don't want explanations when they long for a hot bath. "I know it's a cry from the soul," he says.

Work has to be finished by mid-September for the beginning of the heating season. The city turns the heat on for at least 202 days every year, Lapir says. The heat goes on once the temperature averages 47 for four or five days.

Muscovites, who have learned to cope with almost anything, have managed to make do without hot water. They'll grab a towel and visit a friend in another district.

Or they'll go to a banya, a public sauna that is usually as much for relaxation as for washing. Another method involves buying a bathtub-sized heating coil, a giant version of the kind travelers use to heat a cup of water for tea or coffee, and plunging it into a tub of water.

Yevdokia Babkova, 73, a pensioner, boils big pots of water, which she carries to the bathtub. She's so grateful for 11 months of hot water that she doesn't complain when it's off in summer.

"We didn't have any hot water at all until 1959," she says. "So now we are lucky to have it at all. Today, they only turn it off for three weeks. In previous years, it was more than a month. Of course, they need to turn it off. How can it work if it isn't repaired?"

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