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Breaking bad: Water main failures occur by the hundreds. What's the city doing about it?

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 22/1/2012 (2038 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

Neighbours call it the "annual Lloyd landscaping."

Crews have dug up the Lloyd family's front yard nearly every year since they moved into their home on a quiet North Kildonan cul-de-sac in the mid-1990s. But this has nothing to do with tree planting or flower bed maintenance -- the water main pipe located beneath the Lloyds' front lawn has been among the most troublesome in Winnipeg.

After a record-low amount of water main breaks in 2010, the city had 570 last year, up from 328.

WAYNE GLOWACKI/WINNIPEG FREE PRESS archives After a record-low amount of water main breaks in 2010, the city had 570 last year, up from 328.

City of Winnipeg data show the Elaine Place pipe broke four times between October and November 2009 and once more in 2010. That makes it the site of the most-repeated water main breaks in the last three years, next to a janitorial company on Pacific Avenue.

Cathy Lloyd said she's lost track of how many times the pipe has broken and her family has temporarily gone without water. She said the water main woes have become a running joke in the neighbourhood, since crews dig a hole in her front yard every time it breaks.

"I can't even count how many we've had. For a while when we first moved in, it was every year," Lloyd said. "It's literally always a mud pile in my front yard."

After recording a record-low number of water main breaks in 2010, Winnipeg saw a jump in the number of breaks last year.

The city recorded 570 water main breaks in 2011, up from an all-time low of 328 the previous year. Late summer and early fall were particularly bad, and data show that four days in August, September, and October recorded eight breaks a day.

Geoffrey Patton, an asset management engineer with the city's water and waste department, said last summer's dry weather was the reason more weakened pipes started to break. Bone-dry soil caused the ground to shift, Patton said, and more pipes that had already suffered corrosion started to break.

Despite the increase, Patton said, Winnipeg has been successful at reducing the number of water main breaks thanks in part to better ways of reducing corrosion on the most at-risk pipes. In the 1980s, the city saw about 2,500 breaks a year.

Still, the hundreds of breaks that occur every year are an inconvenience to homeowners and motorists, and can cause significant damage to streets and properties. City crews are focused on replacing kilometres of the most break-prone water mains that would stretch from here to Grand Forks.

Progress is slow, however, since crews can only replace about 14 kilometres of pipe each year.

"It's going to take us some time to deal with these," Patton said.

Thin cast iron pipes that were installed between the 1940s and 1960s make up between 10 and 15 per cent of Winnipeg's total water mains, but are the culprit in more than 80 per cent of all breaks.

Patton said the thin cast iron was the best technology at the time, but has proven to corrode more easily under the city's shifting soils.

These pipes exist in neighbourhoods such as River Heights and parts of the North End that were built in the post-war era.

Patton said technology cannot predict where water mains are going to break and when, so the city has tried to reduce corrosion by installing zinc anodes on pipes that are in contact with the soil. The soil attacks the anode instead of the cast iron, Patton said, and has helped slow the rate of breaks on the 128 kilometres of pipe they've been able to target.

Crews use the anodes on water mains below grass or boulevards, since drilling holes in roadways can cause serious damage and potholes to roads if water creeps in.

"It's definitely working. Breaks still occur, but not at the same rate," he said. "We're seeing a bit of flattening."

Winnipeg pays close attention to its "feeder mains," the large pipes that come out of pumping stations and distribute water across the city. A break in these large pipes would be catastrophic, officials say, so they monitor and inspect these pipes all the time. Patton said a feeder main has never suffered a break.

Fixing breaks in other areas can be an arduous process, since crews can't dig until they know what lies beneath the surface.

Terry Josephson, a field service operations engineer for the city's water and waste department, said this has become more complicated over time, since they now have to be mindful there could be a myriad of things such as fibre-optic cables, gas lines, and cables underground. Crews use high-tech earphones to listen to the hydrant, valve, or through a test hole in an effort to pinpoint the source of the leak.

Josephson said the leak could be the size of a pinhole, or a complete break in the pipe. Crews work quickly to shut off the water, and drill down to repair the leak. Water mains typically lie about slightly more than two metres below ground, and Josephson said cold weather makes it more difficult to drill through the ground and fix the problem.

Winnipeg now replaces outdated water mains every time it simultaneously does major repairs to roadways.

Patton said there's also a system in place to prioritize replacing water mains that have suffered three to four breaks in a five-year span.

He said the city will try to plan for the next 50 years, since once it finishes replacing the thin cast iron pipes it will probably be time to start work on the asbestos concrete pipes installed in the 1970s in parts of Charleswood, Fort Richmond, and St. James.

"We're trying to target the worst of the worst," he said. "Maybe 50 years from now we'll have a lull in the number of water main breaks."


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Number of Watermain Breaks, 2009 - 2011


Small dots indicate locations with one watermain break between 2009 and 2011. 
Yellow markers indicate locations where watermains broke  two or three times.
Red markers indicate locations with four or more watermain breaks over the two-year period.

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