Larry Chapman operates a backhoe while digging at a recent water main break in DeWitt. City water crews have fixed an unusually high number of breaks this year caused by long periods of cold weather. 

When Marty Daniels replaced longtime DeWitt water superintendent Abe Fox in September, perhaps he couldn’t have predicted how much after-hours work would be involved. 

But, then again, maybe there was a sign.

“Abe retired on Monday, and I walked in on Tuesday and learned a well had gone down,” Daniels said.

Five months later, and the work has transitioned from warm-weather troubles like broken wells to an abnormally high number of water main breaks throughout the city.

Daniels said that his first year on the crew, eight mains were repaired, and the second year that number dipped to six. The city averages six to eight breaks per year, said DeWitt City Public Works Director Matt Proctor.

“This (winter) we’ve had 16,” Daniels said. “And that’s in the last month and a half.”

The DeWitt Water Department’s primary three-man crew of Daniels, Larry Chapman and Kody Hoffmann, along with other city workers including those from the wastewater department, are dispatched to mend the breaks. 

Super Bowl ‘fun’day?

Every Super Bowl Sunday, Proctor has a good reason to keep his phone close by. 

Since he started in the role in 2008, a water main has broken on Super Bowl Sunday twice. The first one caused Proctor to miss the game entirely. This year, the break was called in around 7 a.m. and crews spent most of the day battling frigid conditions and layers of ice and snow. 

The National Weather Service in the Quad Cities reported temperatures that day fluctuated between minus 10 and zero. 

“We were there until 4 p.m.” Daniels said. “Nothing went wrong, but (due to the cold) everything that would (normally) take 5 minutes took 45.”

As soon as city crews are notified of a water main break, many things go into action. Daniels or Proctor notify utility providers — internet services, gas lines, fiber optic, and others — so they can mark the area surrounding the break. Safety, Daniels said, is the top priority. 

The Fix

Once the utilities are marked, crews try to discern the location of the leak by using ground-level microphones. 

“We dig where we hear the most noise. It sounds like rocks tumbling,” Daniels said. Sometimes the first hole isn’t in the right spot. 

“Sometimes you have to chase it,” Daniels said. 

The difficulties in digging the holes can vary. This year’s Super Bowl Sunday repair was tedious. A layer of ice and hardened snow made finding the break more difficult. Water system infrastructure, like valves, also needed to be thawed with a torch before they could be turned off. 

Water is typically cut off to at least one city block during the repair, Proctor said. 

“The hard thing with a water main is it’s never at a convenient time, and you’re trying to dig through frozen ground, so you have to dig all around the main in a safe fashion,” Proctor said.

Once the hole is ready, water is pumped out of the hole to keep contaminated water from flowing back into the pipe. Usually at least one worker climbs in the hole with waders on to work on the break. In some instances, water in the hole can be knee or even mid-thigh depth. 

“It’s always leaking as you’re fixing it,” Proctor said. “The water temp is in the 55- to 58-degree range. It comes out warm, but when it’s cold, you don’t want to be wet in a time like this. You do end up getting wet and muddy, and what you pump out on the ground freezes.”

A repair typically takes seven to eight hours. Pipes are fixed with a stainless-steel clamp that Proctor says stands the test of time, so the risk of the spot re-breaking is low. 

Once done, the hole is filled with gravel.

Holes are usually dug in the public right-of-way, which means once spring comes, the street surface and curb must be fixed

The cause

This year’s frequent main breaks can be attributed to one culprit: cold air temperatures. 

“We can handle a quick shot of cold, but right now we’ve had cold for a sustained time and the frost is driving deep in areas without snow cover,” Proctor said. 

Snow and ice typically act as insulation for the ground. When they are cleared from roadways, the cold air penetrates below. 

That freezing and melting causes the frostline to fluctuate and soil and rocks below the surface to move. This causes stress on the pipes. 

“If you bend a paperclip enough times, it eventually breaks,” Proctor said. 

“The ground moves as it freezes and thaws. You don’t fill your ice cube tray all the way up, you only fill the tray up halfway because as the ice freezes, it expands. The ground is doing the same thing,” he said.