On Tuesday, the morning of Feb. 5, the City of Ithaca reported a water main break at the intersection of Valley Road and Cornell Walk. The break was listed as reported at 9 a.m., and a crew would likely have to spend the remainder of the work day repairing it.
It’s one of the most common sites in Ithaca over the last few months: news alerts flash across the city’s website and into the inboxes of residents all around the area detailing emergency construction that has to be completed to stop a water main break.
Assistant Superintendent of Public Works Erik Whitney said the city is currently seeing an average of four to five water main breaks per week, a significant increase over years prior; Whitney said most years the city would see more around this time of year, but not to this extent. Each break, he said, costs the city thousands of dollars in repair and labor costs. A normal year would probably see about 30 water main breaks, most of which would happen in the cold-weather months.
“Soil underneath the streets has moisture in it, and the freeze/thaw cycle produces an expansion and contraction which, even when it’s down four or five feet, the expansion and contraction exerts pressure on the cast-iron pipes,” Whitney said, which can cause them to eventually break. “That’s typical of movement above pressing down on the pipe.”
The rollercoaster nature of this season’s temperatures, emphasized by last week’s two-day swing from highs in the teens to Monday’s balmy 60 degrees, makes the freeze/thaw cycle worse on pipes as opposed to just consistently icy temperatures. Whitney said he thinks that though the city’s sewer infrastructure is aging (and is in the very long-term process of being replaced with new pipes, as evidenced by the months-long construction seen over the summer on East State Street), that probably can’t be considered a universal cause for the uptick in breaks.
“I don’t think that would be much of a factor,” Whitney said. “Some of the pipes are in great condition, some aren’t.”
Each water main break takes a crew of city workers about 8-10 hours to repair entirely. Whitney also estimated that the City of Ithaca has to spend between $5,000 and $10,000 to fully address each water main break, meaning that expenditure has likely already reached above $100,000 already this year. Though the worst of Ithaca’s winter might be over, as it’s tough to imagine many more nights of negative temperatures, Whitney said the frequency of water main breaks normally doesn’t slow down until April. He said 80 percent of a year’s breaks normally occur between December and March. Despite that, Whitney said so far the city has not run into a situation this year in which they haven’t had the workforce to properly address several main breaks occurring simultaneously, though that might be challenged as the months wear on.
“So far, so good,” Whitney said. “We can deploy two crews to any two breaks at any hour of the day. If we’re looking at a third break simultaneously, we might be able to do it. [That] hasn’t happened this year, but it’s happened in the past.”