In the coming weeks, someone will have to crawl into a 40-inch pipe where it marries a smaller pipe, which happened to burst under Lombard Street, and apply a rubber seal to prevent disaster from happening again.
For years, Baltimore officials have warned that the city's centuries-old network of water pipes is crumbling. But few seem to care - until they break. Late last month, a fracture in a 77-year-old pipe during a morning rush-hour flooded downtown streets, shutting down Baltimore's business district for a day and tangling traffic for several more.
On Saturday, city officials seized the opportunity to invite the public to view a set of similar pipes, learn how the aging system can be tweaked to provide several more decades of life, and tour one of Baltimore's water-filtration plants, which is normally closed for security.
The biggest problem is tree roots breaking into rusted pipes and springing leaks at their weakest points, the joints where two pipes meet, said LaVern Dettman, a superintendent with J. Fletcher Creamer & Son, whose contractors are assisting with the Lombard Street repairs.
The display included a 42-inch joint deposited in the parking lot of the city's Montebello Filtration Plant off of Hillen Road in Northeast Baltimore. The iron was clean on the inside but a dusty brown tree root still clung to the joint.
Close to the Lombard Street break is a joint where a 40-inch pipe joins the 20-inch pipe that burst and needs a seal, Dettman said. To fix it, the water has to be cut off and a worker must crawl in to install the circular, black rubber seal.
The next step to improve the city system is to clean the pipes, which Baltimore has been slowly doing. Temporary, above-ground pipes must be installed, then the old pipes are bored out with a device that looks a bit like a metal Christmas tree with a cable running through it.
Rather than rip up the street, machines are posted at each end of the pipe to pull the scrub brush back and forth.
After the cleaning, the inside is coated with cement so it "won't rust as much," said Joe Brennan, a chemist with the Department of Public Works. "When the pressure surges in rusted pipes, they just pop like a balloon."
Water mains in South Baltimore, Waverly and Ednor Gardens have already been cleaned and replaced, said Kurt Kocher, a spokesman for the city's public works department. The Cedarcroft neighborhood is next, he said.
City water bills are expected to rise 9 percent next year, with the $74 average household increase helping pay for improvements.
Compared with the pipes, the Montebello water treatment plant, which about a dozen visitors toured Saturday afternoon, has held up well. Built from 1912 to 1915, the facility can purify 490 million gallons a day, but customers currently use about 37 percent of that, said water quality lab assistant Karen Campbell.
The city's drinking water flows through 7 miles of pipe from the Loch Raven Reservoir to the plant, where it's chlorinated; mixed with aluminum sulfate, which causes all of the debris to separate out in baseball-size balls of sludge; filtered; and then seasoned with fluoride and lime.
"I always tell people that buying all of these filtering systems for your faucets is a waste of money," Campbell said.