Wake County

The bitter cold is wreaking havoc on Raleigh’s water lines

Drone footage of Raleigh’s winter wonderland snowfall

Aerial views of Raleigh after winter weather covered the Triangle with inches of snow Thursday, Jan. 2018.
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Aerial views of Raleigh after winter weather covered the Triangle with inches of snow Thursday, Jan. 2018.

Winter has not been kind to water lines throughout the city.

Raleigh has seen 118 water main breaks since Dec. 1, according to officials. That’s nearly double the 66 breaks during December 2016 and January 2017.

Most of the problems have occurred since a deep freeze ushered in the new year in much of the South. In Raleigh, temperatures dipped below zero on New Year’s Eve and didn’t thaw out until eight days later. Bitter cold returned this week, as parts of Wake County got up to 7 inches of snow.

Raleigh has had 84 water main breaks since Dec. 28, Robert Massengill, director of public utilities, said Thursday.

“And that’s as of the last time I checked my email,” he added.

The city suffers more than 300 water main breaks in an average year, Massengill said, and most occur inside the Interstate 440 Beltline. Breaks can leave families without running water, snarl traffic and make it tough for customers to reach businesses.

Some of the city’s pipes are more than a century old, utility spokesman Ed Buchan said.

It typically costs between $5,000 and $7,000 to repair a water main break, he said, and about half the cost goes to repaving the street.

Water mains break most often in the cold, Massengill said, but not because the water in the pipes has frozen solid.

“It’s related to the thermal expansion and contraction of the pipes,” he said. “The ground temperature changes some – not a lot down where our pipe is, at 3 feet deep – but the water from (Falls Lake) is cooler this time of year, when you get down in almost the single digits. The water in the pipe is colder, and that makes the metal of the pipe expand and contract.”

For that reason, Massengill said, sustained cold temperatures aren’t as much of a problem as extreme swings.

“We do see increased numbers when the temperatures start to get to below freezing, in the 20s and teens,” he said. “And in the late spring as the pipes start to warm back up, we’ll have another flurry. But this year seems to be an unusually high number for us.”

Spring-like weather isn’t too far away: Raleigh is expected to see temperatures in the 60s on Sunday and Monday.

Gargan: 919-829-4807; @hgargan