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    Extreme Temperatures, Water Main Breaks Go Together

    By By Alex Sosnowski, Expert Senior Meteorologist
    January 26, 2011, 3:17:13 PM EST

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    People in St. Louis, Philadelphia, New York, Nashville and most recently Washington, D.C. have been getting quite a winter as far as problems with water main breaks.

    Of course the problem is no stranger to other cities and smaller towns.

    Water running through the pipes does not freeze, it is the ground around the pipes that causes many of the problems.

    Meteorologist and geology buff Jim Andrews points out, "Soil is always moving very slowly down hill."

    "it is moving slower than a glacier, but gravity is still tugging on it," Andrews added.


    Water gushes from a ruptured main next to the Capital Beltway, Capital Heights, Md. Monday morning, Jan. 24, 2011. The rushing water closed all southbound lanes of a portion of Interstate 95 in Prince Georges County.

    Persistent cold weather (or hot weather) causes the ground to shift more abruptly, by causing it to expand or contract.

    The presence of frost in the soil can lead to excessive expansion of the ground, in turn causing pipes to shift and break. The same can be said for a sudden thaw, or a heat wave.


    For sure, it is the age of the pipes that can be a problem, such as in the degree of corrosion and decay of seams that connect the runs. Many U.S. cities have miles of pipes over 100 years old.

    However, the underlying cause, no pun intended, is the shifting ground surrounding the pipes adding stress.

    There's nothing the consumer can do, but report main breaks as soon as they are spotted. Water lying on the streets will freeze, leading to dangerous conditions and difficult cleanup.

    Indoor Pipe Protection

    As far as concerns for household pipes freezing, be sure to allow some heat in rooms where the piping runs through.

    Suspected indoor problem piping can be wrapped with electric heat tape.

    Make sure there are no drafts of cold air hitting the pipes, such as from a hole in the wall for cable or telephone lines.

    Open cabinet doors under sink areas to help allow heat from the room to circulate and prevent cold air from building up in an enclosed space. Lift off ceiling tiles in areas where piping runs through for the same reason.

    A less desirable, but effective, means would be to let water drip slightly from a faucet, as running water does not freeze. However, it is a wasteful solution. Image an entire town or city engaging in the activity.

    Currently, there is some good news and bad news as far as temperatures are concerned.

    The good news is that temperatures will recover from their deep freeze this week.

    The bad news is that a new wave of cold air may rival the outbreak from this weekend 10 to 14 days out.

    More bad news is that these swings in temperature, or the persistent cold in some areas, will contribute to more water main failures in coming weeks.

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