Utility crews are still trying to figure out what caused water main breaks this week that jammed traffic on two of the city’s major roads.
Water pipes expand and contract as temperatures rise and fall. Raleigh has seen temperatures climb into the 90s every day this week, but Public Utilities Director Robert Massengill said he didn’t think the heat could have caused the water main breaks on Six Forks Road and Capital Boulevard.
The breaks drew attention to Raleigh’s aging infrastructure, but city leaders say the water lines are mostly in good shape, and the city has had fewer water main breaks this year compared with last year at this time.
So far, there have been 115 breaks, while there were 129 by this time last year.
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While breaks are common, Massengill said it was odd for two breaks to occur in the same week on heavily traveled thoroughfares.
“It makes people ask what in the world’s going on with Raleigh’s water system,” Massengill said. “We’ve got 2,400 miles of water pipes. With a system our size and age, we’re gonna have some big breaks from time to time.”
Raleigh launched an infrastructure assessment program three years ago to monitor its water and sewer lines. Workers have been sending remote-controlled cameras through the pipes in an attempt to prevent major mishaps.
But utility monitors didn’t foresee the breaks this week, and repairs took longer than expected.
A water main break Sunday night closed East Six Forks Road near Anderson Drive and Wake Forest Road. After completing the repairs, crews determined the road needed to be repaved, and the stretch remained closed until Wednesday evening.
On Wednesday morning, another water main break occurred on Capital Boulevard near Brentwood Road. Three lanes of southbound traffic were closed until Friday morning, snarling traffic for thousands of commuters.
About 64,000 drivers use Capital Boulevard every day, and about 23,000 use Six Forks Road, said Eric Lamb, the city’s transportation manager.
The 12-inch pipe under Six Forks Road was about 55 years old – not old enough to raise major red flags. Utility experts expect such pipes to last 75 to 100 years, Massengill said.
The Capital Boulevard break came from a 6-inch water valve connected to a fire hydrant. The bolts holding a valve to a main malfunctioned, but crews aren’t sure why.
“The bolts were loose and allowed it to leak,” Massengill said. “That thing’s been in the ground for 65 years, so we’re still investigating how it would’ve happened and why it would’ve happened.”
Breaks more likely in winter
More than 300 water lines across the city typically break each year, mostly during the winter months, Massengill said.
About 344 pipes have burst since the start of 2015. More than 150 of the breaks occurred in January and February, while about 35 occurred in June or July.
Since 2013, Raleigh has been sending cameras into older sewer pipes as part of its “condition assessment project.” But the city can’t be as thorough with water pipes because they are always under pressure and the necessary technology is more expensive, Massengill said.
Raleigh reports having fewer water main breaks than most major cities. While Raleigh averages 10 water main breaks per month, the national average is 31, according to data provided by the utilities department.
Washington, D.C., averages 400 to 500 breaks per year and sometimes responds to more than 20 breaks at a time, according to its water and sewer authority.
The Raleigh City Council recently increased utility fees to help pay for infrastructure maintenance. The average resident will pay an extra $1.99 per month. An average family using about 3,700 gallons of water pays about $50 per month, according to city data.
Raleigh has plans for four big utility projects this year – one of them on water pipes serving the North Hills area.
City leaders say they are trying to be proactive when it comes to the water and sewer systems. On Friday, council member Bonner Gaylord touted the city’s efforts.
“We have won best-tasting water in the state and other accolades for the quality of our infrastructure,” he said.
Meanwhile, Massengill said this week’s water main breaks didn’t raise major concerns for the city.
“Customers don’t need to worry,” he said. “We’re not falling apart.”