What happens when a water main breaks?

What happens when a water main breaks?
December 13, 2017

From the first call to final testing, here’s how a top team gets water flowing through the pipes again

The main water lines in a city’s system are estimated to last about a century, but breaks are part of normal utility operations, and they can happen for a range of reasons. For example, if the air temperature is at or below freezing, the frozen ground above the pipe may increase stress on it. Dry, hot weather also can cause a break because it can make the ground shift. Other causes include the normal aging of mains and sudden pressure fluctuations.

When a main break occurs in Louisville Water Company’s service area, a team of veteran employees jumps into action to make repairs. For instance, if you call (502) 583-6610 to report a main break (or any other type of emergency), your call may go to Beth McAnelly, who has worked for the company for about 18 years and is one of five Radio Room operators.

The number of calls she gets per day varies widely, she says. Some days she might get 4 to 10 reports of main breaks. Other days she might not get any.

Sometimes she’ll get a call from a customer who thinks there’s a broken main nearby, but actually there’s another problem. In the winter, if you turn a tap and no water comes out, about 99 percent of the time the cause is actually a frozen line in your home. Still, McAnelly says Louisville Water helps every customer and checks out every report.

Besides residential customers, she also gets reports of main breaks from businesses, police officers, MSD, or even the Crescent Hill Louisville Water facility if staff members notice a fluctuation in water levels.

If there’s a large main break sending water into the street, she usually gets reports from a lot of people very quickly, and “things can get stressful,” she says. “It can be a little hectic, but everyone at Louisville Water works well together. We’re like a well-oiled machine.”

The 2 a.m. Call

The Planning Department then contacts a Louisville Water repair crew. During the day-shift, crew notification and assignment is a straightforward process as the repair ticket moves through the computer system so a manager or supervisor rarely gets involved. During the off-shift, however, including weekends and holidays, a dispatcher who receives a report of a main break will contact the on-call supervisor at home to assign a crew.

Distribution Supervisor Harold Hunt, who has been with Louisville Water for 27 years, says repairing relatively minor breaks may be delayed until the next day if the break occurs overnight, especially in residential neighborhoods. He waits to assign a crew because he wants to minimize inconvenience to customers, and he would prefer for the crew to arrive after most people have gone to work.

But if it’s a bad break, he sends workers right away. “Even if it’s 2 a.m., if our emergency responder determines that there’s a severe main break, we’ll mobilize a crew,” he says.

Circumferential breaks, which are breaks around the diameter of a pipe, are usually relatively minor and can be fixed fairly quickly with a repair sleeve — a metal sheath that fits around the pipe and bolts into place. A bit more difficult kind of break is called a blow hole, which, as you probably expect, means there’s a hole in the pipe. The size of the hole can vary widely — from a quarter inch to 10 inches or more.

Split-line breaks, which are lateral breaks in a pipe, are usually the most difficult to repair. They always require a section of the the pipe to be removed and replaced. Hunt said about a third of the 500 to 600 main breaks that Louisville Water experiences every year are severe breaks. 

The First Responder

As soon as a main break is reported, McAnelly fills out a ticket with a code number that will be used to track the repair from start to finish. This ticket — marked “priority” — shows up on the computer of one of Louisville Water’s emergency turners. In case the turner is away from his or her truck, McAnelly also may call the employee, especially if there has been a report of a large break. If it’s unusually large, she may even contact more than one turner.

LaRon Basey is an emergency turner who has been with Louisville Water for more than 15 years. “We’re always the first response,” he says of the company’s turner team. “We’re the first to arrive on the scene in any water emergency.”

There are actually a wide range of emergencies to which they respond. For instance, if a customer’s home is flooding because a pipe inside the house has broken and he or she can’t find the shutoff valve, Basey will go stop the water.

When the emergency is a main break, the first thing he does at the scene is assess the traffic situation, and if necessary, direct motorists and set out cones. The valves Basey needs to turn are usually in the roadway or the grass. He locates them through measurements that appear on his computer.

Basey says he tries to keep at least some water flowing to customers in the area, but if there is major flooding, he may have no choice but to completely shut down the main. If there are any nearby schools or hospitals, he looks for alternate supply lines that will allow the facilities to continue to receive water even if the main is shut down.

As soon as he has the situation under control, he calls back to the Radio Room to let them know. Then he’ll stay on the scene if there is a large hole in the roadway or any other type of dangerous situation that would require him to make sure people in the area stay safe. If the area is secure, the emergency turner’s job is done — for now.

Marking Utility Lines

After the turner secures the area, the main break is reported to Louisville Water’s Planning Dept., where a staff member — possibly Carrie Pernini, who has been with the company for six years —calls 811, which is the “call-before-you-dig” number run by a non-profit corporation made up of Kentucky operators of underground facilities.

Calling the number dispatches a line locator to a proposed excavation site to mark underground utility lines with color-coded marks, stakes or flags. It’s a free service that even homeowners can use. (Visit kentucky811.org for more information.) Pernini says the emergency turner can mark Louisville Water’s own lines, but the repair crew for a water main break will still need to know if there are any gas, phone, electric or other utility lines in the area. This is why you might occasionally see a crew that seems to be just standing around a water main break: They’re waiting for the lines to be marked so they won’t disrupt any other utility services as they make the repair.

When Louisville Water calls 811 and designates the situation an emergency, a line locator responds to the scene within two hours. Pernini says she also contacts Louisville Metro Government for the permit that Louisville Water will need to cut into the pavement or dig a large hole.

Leading the Crew

If any type of break happens during the second shift, there’s a good chance that the leader of the crew repairing it will be Bill Perry, who has worked for Louisville Water for 26 years. A dozen or so years ago, he celebrated New Year’s Eve by repairing a 48-inch main. The temperature was two degrees below zero.

Perry’s crew usually includes three people. There might be more people on a day-shift crew, he says, but they often are younger employees still learning all the steps involved in repairing a main, which may include running temporary service for customers from another line or a fire hydrant. This is especially important if the main is serving such customers as schools and daycare centers.

The equipment involved in the repair usually includes a dump truck and a mini-excavator or full-sized backhoe. Perry says a relatively minor circumferential break in dirt (not a roadway) can usually be fixed in four hours or less. More severe breaks can take seven to 12 hours or even longer.

No matter how long it takes, “we’re big on safety,” Perry says. The crew’s gear always includes reflective vests, water-proof work boots, hardhats and safety glasses. “We do everything we can to keep both the crew and the public safe,” he says.

Testing the Water

After the pipe is repaired, the crew uses a fire hydrant to flush the main for five or ten minutes to remove any containments. The excavation area may be filled with rock and/or cement, and if the break occurs in a roadway, the crew will get the area ready for new asphalt, which will be installed by a road crew.

But Louisville Water employees aren’t done yet. The crew puts the main on a one-way feed and tests the water for residual chlorine and turbidity (cloudiness caused by particles). Then they collect another sample that is stored in a protective cooler.

Roger Tucker, a scientist who has been with Louisville Water for 20 years, is one of the lab technicians who may head to the site to collect the sample. He says federal regulations require upstream and downstream testing of any repaired main before it’s put back in service. Tucker and his lab colleagues test for a specific group of bacteria called coliforms.

If the sample passes the water quality test, the lab will contact the Radio Room, which dispatches a turner to open additional valves and restore two-way feed to the area (unless it’s a dead-end main).

The entire repair process is driven by the need to minimize customer inconvenience and fix the main as quickly as possible, but that sense of urgency is tempered by the team’s commitment to safety as well as its dedication to making sure the job is done well — to not just meeting but exceeding regulations and standards at every stage.

You’ve probably heard the old saying “Do you want it done fast or do you want it done right?” It’s a saying that does not apply to Louisville Water Company employees. They do it fast. They do it right.