- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 28, 2000

Frigid weather was not a welcome Christmas gift for many area residents. Utility companies report that continuous below-freezing temperatures have caused about 185 water-line breaks in the District of Columbia and its suburbs in the past week.

Breaks are typical when winter weather arrives.

"This is just the beginning of the season when these problems occur," said Libby Lawson, spokeswoman for the D.C. Water and Sewer Authority, which runs water to about 130,000 customers.

"It was nothing unusual," said Steven Edgemon, vice president and manager of Virginia American Water Co., which fixed 11 broken mains serving 42,000 accounts in Alexandria and Prince William County over the weekend.

"The numbers [of breaks] we are having are not unusual," agreed James Warfield, executive officer of Fairfax County Water Authority, which has a "fairly new system" serving 210,000 accounts.

Few water mains broke yesterday. Repair workers instead were busy fixing service lines into buildings and residences.

Water companies advised customers to wrap exposed pipes with insulation or heat tape, keep garage doors closed, seal leaks in crawl spaces and basements, open faucets nearest to frozen pipes and use a hair dryer not a torch to thaw pipes.

The warnings came too late for a brick rambler in the 1500 block of Longfellow Street near McLean that caught fire Tuesday night. Called at 7:15 p.m., firefighters brought the fire under control in 30 minutes, then determined it began when a plumber used a blow torch to thaw frozen pipes in a crawl space.

"Homeowners should be equally as prepared to protect their own pipes from freezing and bursting," said John R. Griffin, general manager of the Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission, which serves Montgomery and Prince George's counties in Maryland.

Whole communities may be affected as temperatures drop and more mains break, requiring crews to cut off water supplies while repairs are made.

"It's all about the cast-iron mains," said David Hundelt, engineering supervisor of Arlington's Water and Sewer Department, which has more than 35,000 accounts.

More than 60 percent of the water main breaks occur during December, January and February, said Chuck Brown, spokesman for the WSSC, which has more than 5,000 miles of mains serving 1.5 million customers.

In 98 percent of the cases, breaks occur in cast-iron pipes installed before 1970, Mr. Brown said.

Temperature fluctuations cause the metal to expand and contract. Mains must be laid in a bedding of gravel, stones and/or sand to allow for adjustment.

"The real key is that they be installed properly," said Mr. Edgemon.

Although the mains are planted more than 4 feet underground well below the freeze line 5 inches of frozen ground surface can cause shifts of lower levels that put extraordinary pressures on the cast iron, already weakened from years of use.

"A 10-degree change in the air or water temperature can dramatically increase stress on a pipe," said Mr. Brown, pointing out that water from supply towers and the Potomac River well below 40 degrees flows into the pipes and can cause them to become brittle.

WSSC has budgeted $120 million to lay 145 miles of stronger, more flexible ductile iron mains in the next six years, Mr. Brown said.

Finding the location of a break can take time because the flow may be several yards away from the actual break.

But Miss Lawson said "sophisticated equipment" has been developed to pinpoint breaks, avoiding the need to probe the length of the main.

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