Soils can shift during extended periods of cold weather, which can cause water lines to break, Oak Ridge Public Works Director Shira McWaters said Tuesday.
On Monday, Oak Ridge City Manager Mark Watson told City Council members that crews had responded to 35 water main breaks since January 1, an average of about five per day.
“It is not unusual for water systems (nationwide) to experience above-average breaks during extended cold weather periods when the ground starts to freeze and the subsequent thawing when warm weather returns,” McWaters said when asked about the water line breaks on Tuesday. “This is due to the shifting of soils that can cause the breaks.”
In Oak Ridge, the age of the municipal water system is a factor in the frequency of the breaks because many of the lines are older and reaching the end of their useful life, McWaters said.
“Older water mains can become more brittle and therefore more susceptible to outside forces that new mains can withstand,” McWaters said. “Many of the city’s water mains are the 1940s-era cast-iron pipe. Ductile iron or plastic pipe are primarily the types of mains currently installed. The long-term replacement of the 1940s-era water mains will help mitigate the frequency of the breaks associated with soils shifting.”
Oak Ridge was built in the 1940s as part of the Manhattan Project during World War II. That was a top-secret federal program to build the world’s first atomic bomb.
The City of Oak Ridge has incorporated the water main breaks onto a map using a geographic information system, or GIS, that allows the city to evaluate the mains based on a number of factors, including break history. That will allow the city to prioritize and develop a long-term replacement plan, McWaters said.
“We are currently in the design phase to replace a portion of the water main on West Tennessee Avenue that has a history of breaks,” McWaters said. “As more of the older water mains are replaced, the frequency of water main breaks should reduce.”
Oak Ridge Today asked how the number of breaks during sub-freezing temperatures this year compared to previous years. McWaters said the city doesn’t currently have an up-to-date comparison of the annual break history.
More information will be added as it becomes available.
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