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Brutal cold has been rough on local water mains

Below-zero temperatures expected Saturday will rise into the 30s on Sunday – a relief for many local residents, but a potential problem for those responsible for local water lines.

Public works officials say more water mains could break, increasing the toll taken on aging water systems.

“Dramatic swings in temperature from below to above freezing can cause problems with our buried infrastructure,” said Brianna Wooten, Montgomery County Environmental Services communications coordinator.

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A wind chill advisory is in effect through 11 a.m. Saturday. Wind chills today and Saturday will be between 10 and 20 below zero. By Sunday, the temperatures will rise into the 30s, with a potential for a wintry mix of precipitation.

Montgomery County reported more than 35 water main breaks between the New Year’s weekend and Wednesday; Dayton crews fixed 11. On Thursday alone by noon, the city had repaired another two while the county was grappling with 15 more, most attributed to the freezing weather.

The shifting ground causing main breaks reveals an even greater problem that’s getting worse by the year.

“If you look at the long-term trend of main breaks, they are increasing because we have pipes that were put in 100 years ago, 70 years ago and 50 years ago,” Wooten said. “Because different materials were used at different times, those pipes last for a different amount of times. And, unfortunately, those pipes are failing right about now.”

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Many of nation’s water pipes were laid in the early to mid-20th century with a lifespan of 75 to 100 years, according to the American Society of Civil Engineers. The organization gave the country’s aging water systems a grade of “D” in its 2017 Infrastructure Report Card.

David Shade, Dayton’s division manager for water utility field operations, said most of the fixes are repaired with “basically a repair clamp, kind of like a Band-Aid.”

Shade said Dayton’s 792 miles of water mains are on average 75 years old.

More than 50 percent of Montgomery County’s 1,400-mile system was put in more than 50 years ago, Wooten said.

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While it typically takes a crew fewer than four hours to repair, the number of breaks have become staggering.

Montgomery County spends roughly $2 million annually to fix 300 or more water main breaks on the system, according to the county.

Shade said Dayton responds to an average of 120 breaks a year, the majority occurring in December, January and February, he said.

“When the ground freezes, it just cause the earth to naturally move … and the old cast iron pipes break,” Shade said.

Nationally, water mains rupture 240,000 times a year. The breaks along with faulty valves waste about 2.1 trillion gallons of treated drinking water a year, according to the Center for Neighborhood Technology. The loss equates to wasting roughly 14 percent of the already-treated water Americans use every day.

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The American Water Works Association estimates $1 trillion will be required in the next 25 years to maintain and upgrade systems.

Beginning this year, Montgomery County water customers are paying 14 percent more in water and sewer rates in part to keep up with maintenance and replacement of aging infrastructure that shows even more fragility in freezing weather.

County officials estimate about $750 million will need to be spent over the next 20 years to maintain and replace aging portions of the system.

Beginning five years ago, Dayton started spending $8 million each year to upgrade water mains. But at 8 miles a year, or 1 percent of the system annually, the project will go on well into the future, Shade said.

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