Sub-Zero Temps Threaten Water Pipes

Jan 6, 2014

Credit Kealey Bultena / SDPB

Frigid temperatures pose threats not only for people who brave the elements but also for basic infrastructure. A utility manager for Sioux Falls says water main breaks are below average this year, but the extremely low temperatures could create more problems for crews. 

The problem with water main breaks is that no one can predict where they’re going to happen or when the huge water pipes will rupture. Trent Lubbers with the city of Sioux Falls says engineers account for changes in weather, but sometimes mother nature wins.

"There’s a certain amount of flex in the pipe, but as the cold comes in and the frost gets driven down into the ground, the earth shifts enough and the pipes go beyond where they can flex and they’ll break. And if there’s a weak spot in the pipe, the cold weather will find that, and that’s usually where you’ll see a water main break," Lubbers says.

That puts repair crews on defense. The Utility Operations Manager says teams use some of the city’s thousands of valves to shut down service to the broken main.

"It’s typically a five-man crew that will dig up the street and replace the water main," Lubbers says. "They have several techniques to do that, from replacing pipe to replacing sleeves around the pipe. It all depends on what type of break they see."

Lubbers says crew safety is a top priority, because people repairing the pipes are working in icy water while battling dangerous temperatures and wind chills. He says workers spend an average of about 6 hours on repairs from the time they stop water from bubbling up through the pavement to the time they finish fixing the line. Lubbers says, if the break happens on a major pipe under a busy street, all bets are off.

Lubbers says the city actively monitors the condition of infrastructure and proactively replaces areas of concern. They just can’t prevent or predict the problems.

Some homeowners are finding their pipes burst after the water inside has frozen. Lubbers recommends people who houses that sport exposed pipes or plumbing in crawl spaces pay close attention to their plumbing during the cold snap. But, Lubbers says, everyone should monitor pipes in their homes or apartments.

"Make sure that you keep the heat on at an adequate level to protect any plumbing so that it doesn’t go below freezing," Lubbers says. One of the things that you can do is you can actually let the water run a little bit at a really slow trickle because the water will continue to move in the pipe and it won’t freeze up that way."

Lubbers says water freezes quickly when the temperature drops so low. He says homeowners can use heat tape to insulate the pipes, but he says it can be tricky to apply and won't work if not done properly.