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Portland Water maintenance crews have a knack for predicting main breaks.
But it’s not art, it’s science, they explain.
Due to rapid changes in water and soil temperatures during the winter, older cast iron pipes—many working without fail for decades and changing conditions—can become stressed.
And early in 2017, the Portland Water Bureau’s maintenance and construction crews tackled a 13-day stint that broke records by repairing 92 main breaks in less than two weeks. For context, that’s nearly half of the breaks during an average year.
It was a chilly January morning two years ago when Portland Water staff and leadership took stock of how the city’s large water pipes—or mains—were responding to the weather as they carried water from Bull Run to an intricate system of pipes throughout the city. Water temperature had dipped to 39 degrees—often a predictor of increased breaks—so crews and staff were prepared when phones started ringing, launching two weeks of around-the-clock activity.
Which is why this time of year is dubbed Main Break Season. Maintenance and construction crews are called out at all hours, on holidays and weekends, in sleet and snow, to repair broken water mains as they happen. Crews repair nearly 200 main breaks each year, which is relatively low compared to other cities of comparable size because Portland’s soil types help keep pipes from corroding.
“When most of the city is at home, the Water Bureau shows up. Maintenance crews push through very challenging weather and road conditions to make sure our customers can count on their water supply,” said Ty Kovatch, the Water Bureau’s director of construction and maintenance. “We take great pride in our work maintaining the water system and representing the bureau and the City.”
This readiness means that sometimes crew members are home with their families or friends, having dinner or sleeping when the call comes in to report to work. The moments between getting the call and arriving on site can be stressful until they have assessed the scene.
But crews, even in waist deep freezing water and mud, approach each day as an adventure, knowing that they’re keeping water flowing to Portland homes.
“With any main break season, it’s always an adventure,” said Beau Brown, “You’re always waiting for that next call and at the ready to fix the situation.”
And the hard, cold work doesn’t go unnoticed.
One customer in Southwest Portland sent our crews a note: “Good on these city workers! Providing clean and safe drinking water to our taps! Thank you for your sacrifices. You could be warm and cozy with your loved ones right now. Instead, you’re working to deliver us water!”
Factors beyond weather can also contribute to breaks. Soil type and construction activity near to our pipes can cause them to shift, for example. Despite the increase in main breaks that occur during the winter season, crews are typically able to respond and repair most breaks within hours of being notified, or sooner.
“Just being part of the team, getting out there and getting dirty and wet, and being able to respond to a variety of emergencies for the community we serve is what makes this job worth it,” said Danielle Marcial.
Prevent Cold-Weather Home Plumbing Problems
During periods of sustained freezing temperatures, residents may also experience frozen pipes in their homes that can cause problems. To prevent this, insulated faucet covers should be installed over all outdoor faucets. When sustained freezing temperatures hit, customers should leave a trickle of water running in one of their indoor faucets to keep water moving, and open cabinet doors where plumbing is located to allow air from the house to help keep pipes warmer, preventing larger plumbing issues from emerging.
While crews are working in neighborhoods throughout Portland, we also ask that you be our eyes and ears. If you think a main is broken in your neighborhood, please call the Water Bureau’s 24-hour emergency line at 503-823-4874. For more information about preparing for winter weather, visit www.portlandoregon.gov/water/winterprep.