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Samuel Hoffman | The Journal Gazette
City workers Tuesday repair a main break on St. Marys Avenue at West State Boulevard.

Cold truth: City crews, water mains taking hit

– The extreme temperatures are taking a toll on more than just your joints and car batteries.

Just ask the guys trying to repair busted water mains across the city.

As of 4 p.m. Tuesday, City Utilities officials said, there had been 14 water main breaks since 6 p.m. Monday.

The low temperature in Fort Wayne reached 16 degrees below zero Tuesday, tying the record for Jan. 28 set in 1963, the National Weather Service said. With a forecast overnight low of 5 below, more breaks were possible.

There have been so many breaks in such a short period the city has had to bring in contractors to repair some of them, spokesman Frank Suarez said. And working in the cold is difficult.

“It does make it more challenging,” he said. “Even if you’re dressed in warm clothing, you get cold, and their feet are in water or they’re standing on ice and snow.”

Each break costs the city between $2,500 and $3,500 to repair, but with the temperatures and wind chills making work go slower, these are at the upper end of the scale.

And though homes and businesses want their water service restored as soon as possible, there’s another factor: firefighting.

“It is a public safety issue; not only are our customers relying on it, but the fire department needs to have water to fight fires,” Suarez said. “The fire department knows where the breaks are so they can take a tanker, but it’s important to get that main operating as soon as possible.”

Suarez said the breaks are caused by the freeze-thaw cycle – moisture in the soil is being frozen by the extreme cold, causing soil to shift and break brittle water pipes, some of which date to the 1920s.

Of course, water mains aren’t the only thing breaking in the cold: Suarez said there have been at least 50 houses with frozen water meters.

Usually, he said, the affected water meters are ones in garages that are unheated or where the garage door has been left open. During the last deep freeze a couple of weeks ago, he said, there were more than 200 frozen water meters.

Not only does a frozen water meter leave you without water, or with water damage if it breaks open, but customers are responsible for the repair or replacement costs.

“Leave a small stream of water going, it only needs to be about the diameter of a pencil,” Suarez said. “If people are concerned about the increased cost in their water bill, it’s true that it will make your bill higher, but it will be a lot lower than the cost of broken pipes or a damaged interior of your house.”

For those looking for any bit of good news to be had, forecasters say the high today is expected to be 15 to 20 degrees, and Thursday will be a veritable heat wave with a high in the upper 20s.