File photo by Donna Agusti

Water mains: Just another casualty of tough winter temps

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published January 30, 2018

OAKLAND COUNTY — Winter and its flip-flopping temperatures can cause more problems than just slushy puddles and potholes. The dramatic freezing and thawing cycles make for perfect conditions to cause water main breaks.

Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner Jim Nash said the winter is his busiest time of year, with more water main issues than the other three seasons combined.

“When that freezing and thawing happens, the ground shifts a little bit,” Nash said. “(Water main breaks) just happen from time to time, especially in some of our older communities. In Pontiac, for instance, you’ll see some hydrants with dates as old as 1908 on them. So we’re working on replacing those older systems.”

Craig Bryson, communications manager for the Road Commission for Oakland County, said he isn’t a water line expert, but he knows the issues that cold weather can cause for pipes because his agency closes the roads when repairs need to be made.

“It’s safe to say they’re more prone to problems when we have a deep freeze,” Bryson said. “In many winters, the ground does not freeze down to the depths of the water mains, but in a deep freeze, sometimes it does. This just adds additional stress to pipes that, in some cases, are already very old.”

And that’s not counting the lines that run from water mains into residences and businesses. Those connectors are buried at a more shallow depth than water mains, and they are even more likely to freeze and break. 

“A couple years ago, when we had that super cold winter, the leads into the house caused a lot of problems,” Nash said. “For people with a history of breaks, we recommend they keep a faucet dripping. In general, when a line is dripping, it won’t freeze.”

In neighborhoods where breaks are likely, Nash said, the Water Resources Commissioner’s Office makes arrangements with residents so they won’t be charged for the extra water needed to keep faucets dripping. And when a break does happen, the county provides drinking water to residents while pressure is low for repairs.

But that’s rarely necessary, Nash noted, since most water main breaks are small enough to impact just a few houses on a street, and those repairs can be made within hours. 

Larger breaks, like the one that occurred last October, which affected 12 communities and took the better part of a week to repair, are rare, according to Nash. In fact, that incident was such an anomaly that investigators are still looking for what caused the break in the massive pipe 4 feet in diameter. 

“My crews were working 24/7 that week,” he said of the break, which was largely handled by the Great Lakes Water Authority. “That was an unusual break, (not just) because of the size, but the time of year. If a water main breaks in the spring, summer or fall, it’s usually because a tractor hit the line or something.”

After any break, county staff tests the water supply twice before giving customers the all-clear to use water from the tap without boiling it first.

For more tips on safety precautions to take during a water main break, visit the Oakland County Water Resources Commissioner’s page on the county website,