A water main breaks in frigid weather - now what does the city do?

Last Friday started out relatively uneventful, but ended up being anything but. Walking back from lunch, I’m thinking about the rest of my day—I have my column for the Herald to write, a couple lose ends to tie up and voila, the weekend will be here.

Well, the weekend did arrive (and at the same time it always does) however its arrival didn’t mean time off to relax. Somewhere around 12:45 p.m. Friday, on my walk back to the office, I was notified of water coming from a hydrant at Third Avenue NE and Oak Street. This news is never good news—especially when it is about 10 below zero air temp outside. I notified the water department and they began to investigate.

The water was coming up around the hydrant, not actually from the hydrant. This is neither better nor worse, just an update of the facts. Heiderscheidt Digging had been notified; Gopher One Call had been called to get all other utilities in the area marked. One thing we did not enjoy learning, was that a 6-inch high-pressure gas line was about 10 feet south of the fire hydrant where the water was coming up, but for the time being we were safely north of that, so digging began along the north side of the hydrant.

Digging through frost is like digging through concrete. A pavement breaker had to be used to break the frost, so the backhoe could dig through it and remove it. Once the first hole was dug, it was obvious that the water was coming from west of where we were digging. That is the other thing about frost, water doesn’t always come to the surface where the leak is—the frost holds it down until the water can find a path of lesser resistance, like the barrel of the fire hydrant.

A couple feet at a time, we worked toward the west, a very slow process. Eventually, the water started coming from the south. We started digging south, until we came within a few feet of the high-pressure gas line. Unable to continue in this direction, we dug a new hole south of the gas line—hoping that water would still be coming from the south. It was not, the hole was dry.

By now it is about 11 p.m. It was looking like the leak would be near the gas line and we needed to have CenterPoint Energy on site before digging any closer to it. We suspended operations until Saturday morning.

We also brought in a leak consultant to help pinpoint the leak, so we didn’t have to dig through any more frost than necessary. The leak consultant, on Saturday morning, said he believed the leak to be just south of the gas line. CenterPoint was on site by now, so digging continued working toward the gas line.

Sure enough, the leak was directly under the gas line. It was a 6-inch water main, which had split in a complete circle around the pipe. A repair sleeve was installed on the water main and the, by now, rather large hole, was filled and smoothed as good as possible. This will certainly become a soft spot in the road as we thaw out in the spring, but for now it should be passable to traffic.

Most of Third Avenue NE, from Oak Street to Main Street, has ice on it from the leak. It has been sanded heavily, but will still be rough until we get warmer weather later this week to melt it.

Many thanks to all who helped. It was a long and cold process, but many people worked tirelessly until it was fixed. Special thanks, as always, to the crew from Heiderscheidt Digging—Todd, Dusty, Bopper and Larry did an excellent job; as did our water department, Jeff and Mike, our wastewater department, Ron and Ron, and our line department, Jeff, Jolly, Jose and Brent—all of whom helped as needed over the two days. This was certainly a large leak in terms of water lost, because it took so long to locate and repair (an estimate of loss has not yet been completed), but everyone working together, safely, doing whatever they could to help, got it fixed with no additional damage and all went home safe at the end of the day. It was a job well done by all, under very difficult conditions.