City crews work long hours as cold breaks water mains

Public Works Department has about 40 repair jobs

January 23, 2004|By Laurie Willis | Laurie Willis,SUN STAFF

This is the time of year that city workers and motorists alike experience a rash of headaches - but not the kind requiring aspirin and some rest. Instead, they deal with water main breaks, often prompted by aging pipes and extremely cold temperatures.

As of yesterday, city Department of Public Works crews were battling about 40 water main breaks, some trickier than others, said spokesman Kurt Kocher.

That's not a particularly daunting number, especially given the recent frigid weather, but the breaks disrupt traffic and force workers to spend hours in the cold repairing them.

About 4:15 p.m. yesterday on Greenmount Avenue, where it meets East 33rd Street, Peter Townsend, 38, and Giovanni Staiti, 51, labored 5 feet below the street on a 36-inch pipe. Staiti sat in the hole in the mud, using a grinder to clean the pipe, while Townsend kneeled on the other side of the pipe and chipped away at corrosion that had gathered on it.

Paul Dawson, 51, said he and a crew of four men and an operator had been at the site since early Wednesday morning working on the main. He expected it to be repaired by last night.

"If you have a case where you have utilities involved, it's a lot more time-consuming," said Dawson, who has worked with the DPW repairing water mains for 28 years.

"The first thing, and the hardest part about any job, is to locate the leak. Then once it's located, you have to make a decision about shutting off [water] pressure ... based on where the break is, what you're dealing with and how many people would be affected. With this particular one, some people have lost pressure because the shut-off extended to 25th street."

Kocher said the break caused about two dozen businesses and residences to lose water yesterday. Dawson said most breaks occur in water mains 6 to 12 inches in diameter, those that feed into homes. The 36-inch main that crews worked on yesterday distributes large quantities of water from Montebello to other parts of the city, Kocher said.

Baltimore isn't the only place dealing with broken water mains. Baltimore County police have had to assign officers to direct traffic away from the construction work required by broken pipes, said spokesman Bill Toohey. But because each precinct has a traffic unit, "it hasn't really become a real drain on our resources," he said.

Edward C. Adams Jr., director of the county's public works department, said there have been fewer water main breaks in the county this winter than at this time last year. However, he said that for the past several years, officials have noticed recurring problems in the York Road corridor and are discussing whether to replace the 16-inch main that runs up York Road, a project that probably wouldn't be completed for three or four years.

Once a water pipe is laid in Baltimore County, it is turned over to the city for maintenance.

The city and county usually have the most water main breaks when the temperature is below freezing or the weather is extremely hot. Pipes crack when the ground contracts in the cold and expands in the heat.

In January last year, more than 250 water main breaks occurred, twice as many as in January 2002.

The department's budget includes $11 million for water main improvements, with $6 million being used for cleaning and lining aging pipes, and $5 million to pay for water main and hydrant replacements, Kocher said.

At Tomboy, a women's clothing store on Greenmount Avenue, sales associate Sherry Dent said she isn't concerned about the DPW's budget. She just wants the water main repaired and the giant hole in the street in front of her workplace to disappear.

"It makes you feel dizzy to look outside and see this huge hole," said Dent, 21. "I'll just be glad when it's over."

Dent and Danyell Smith, 20, a sales associate at Better Looks, two doors from Tomboy, said the DPW crews were working hard to repair the water main.

Kocher said it's important for everyone to be patient and understanding.

"We have workers who are down in the mud and ice-cold water, and they are really putting their hearts and souls into getting the water mains repaired for you," Kocher said.

Sun staff writers Andrew A. Green and Laura Barnhardt contributed to this article.

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