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Repairing broken water lines: 'You don't think about the cold'

The Courier-Tribune, Asheboro, N.C. — Chip Womick The Courier-Tribune, Asheboro, N.C.

Jan. 13--Editor's Note: Some people may have encountered a detour on East Salisbury Street in Asheboro one morning in the first week of the new year. A large expanse of the asphalt in front of the Randolph County Courthouse was covered in ice -- several inches of ice in places -- by the time work was done on a leak. That's what happens when a water line breaks in the middle of the night and the temperature dips into the teens and water spills from the line for hours while repairs are made. City employees are always on call, ready, willing and able to leave the comforts of home to deal with leaking and blocked water and sewer lines. To borrow words from a song written and recorded by Carole King -- with a popular cover by North Carolina's own James Taylor: 'Winter, spring, summer or fall. All you got to do is call.'

ASHEBORO -- Mayor David Smith calls them unsung heroes.

They are the city workers who, from Dec. 30-Jan. 8, climbed into holes 21 times -- at all hours of the day and night -- to repair broken water mains.

The first three days of 2018 were particularly brutal: There were four broken lines in Asheboro on New Year's Day; three the day after; and six a day later.

"When we get up in the morning and our shower works and our commode flushes, we don't think about why that happens," Smith said last week. "These guys have been up all night -- just about every night. The serious work of the city is not done in city hall."

As anyone with a thermometer, or who stuck a nose out of doors during those days, knows, the water line breaks coincided with a record-breaking cold snap across the South.

On eight of those days, the temperature did not rise above freezing; the low plummeted to single digits four nights.

Yet the men in the water-sewer maintenance department -- and they are all men except for an office assistant -- were on the job through all of it.

Many of us worked through the brutal stretch. Most of us were indoors.

They were not so lucky. Or maybe they were.

The fellows who choose this line of work are not interested in desk jobs, said Andrew Connor, the city's water-sewer maintenance superintendent.

"It's not bad," Connor said in an interview last week. "I like cold weather, and it's pretty exciting. When it's cold like that it gets that adrenalin going, which keeps you warm. You don't think about the cold. You think about getting that water back on for the customer and (getting) back in the warm."

Facts, figures

City crews actually answered 56 calls for service during the 10-day period referenced above: 35 of the calls were for other cold weather woes such as frozen water meters and frozen water lines on the customer's side of the meter.

The 21 water main breaks is higher than normal, even in winter. During all of fiscal year 2016-17, there were just 67. But Connor recalls a winter about five years ago when city crews tackled 24 line breaks in a week.

"It's not our favorite thing to see water leak after water leak after water leak. We'd a lot rather be proactive than reactive."

A primary culprit in water leaks: Lines stressed by expansion and contraction due to changing temperatures. "They're not made to flex too much," Connor said.

Connor's crews clocked 380 hours of overtime from Dec. 30-Jan. 8. Total cost of material and labor for the 21 line breaks was $11,850. So, with half of the current fiscal year to go -- and plenty of winter days ahead -- the budget has already taken a hit.

But Connor noted that his budget includes three line items, a total of $25,500, from which to cover extra expenses. If that well runs dry, he has other options.

"It's not the city's first rodeo of going through this," he said, "so there's plenty set back for instances like this. Some years we might use half of it. Some years we get close to using it all.

"It's about like your bank account. You've got to be smart with it. I don't spend a lot of mine -- I try not to -- until after winter time. As long as we don't have three or four more like this stretch, we'll be OK."

Connor sent thanks to fellow city workers in the public services department for hauling sand and salt to sites where his crews were working. He said he expects to repay the favor by hauling asphalt for them down the road.

Job opening

The city has an opening for a water/sewer technician II. The closing date to apply is Jan. 17.

It's not for everyone.

Experience in plumbing maintenance or construction tasks or an equivalent combination is required. Applicants find out up front that they must be able to work overtime on short notice, sometimes on weekends and holidays.

The physical requirements? Must be able to properly lift 75 to 100 pounds. Must be able to climb, crawl and crouch. Exposed to noise, fumes, odors and vibrations. Will work outdoors in varying weather conditions.

The posting does not explain that during varied weather conditions like those the water/sewer workers encountered in the last couple of weeks:

* A fellow wielding a wrench to fix a water line might find that the tool gets stuck to his freezing hand. The best way to handle that, Connor said, is to stick wrench and hand under the frigid water in the ditch to unfreeze it.

* If a pipe is broken around its circumference, instead of split lengthwise, it can be repaired with clamps. This repair does not require shutting off the water flowing through the pipe, as required when sections of pipe must be removed and replaced. But it has its challenges. "You're working with water spraying in your face," Connor said. "It's pretty neat."

And what happens when water's spraying and the temperatures are below freezing? Last week, Connor said, one worker pointed out the state of his beard, covered in ice.

* When you're in a ditch fixing a broken pipe, you may be hungry, you may be cold, but you don't want to take a break to eat or to get warm -- even if the guys on the ground are eating hot pizza delivered to the roadside, even if you're standing in water up to your ankles, or your knees: "When it hits," Connor said, "the goal for the crew is let's get on it; let's get it done; let's get out of here."

Repairs for six of the 21 leaks during the recent cold snap were accomplished in two to three hours. Most of the rest took four, five or six hours. It took seven hours to fix a leak on Elm Street on Jan. 7 -- and 10 hours to complete work on the broken 8-inch line on Salisbury Street. (Mother Nature has not finished wreaking havoc on water lines. City crews have responded to two more breaks since Jan. 8.)

* The city provides coveralls, hip boots, toboggans, hard hats and gloves. "Usually the only people wearing gloves," Connor said, "are the ones not in the hole."

He noted that gloves can be a hindrance when you're "in the hole," but that being in the hole provides protection from the wind. Connor admits that it's still "a little chilly" in the hole, not a job everyone would sign up for: "You've got to have a little bit of crazy in you."

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(c)2018 The Courier-Tribune, Asheboro, N.C.

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