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Aging water mains often break under stress of cold
By Valerie K. Schremp Of the Post-Dispatch
While motorists bobbed and weaved around a small flood from a broken 30-inch water main near the middle of Lindbergh Boulevard in Frontenac, the water company blamed the weather and said broken pipes are a growing problem.
So far this month - the second-coldest December on record in the area - some 600 water mains have broken in St. Louis County, which is served by the Missouri-American Water Co.
"What's happened is that it's colder earlier," Lisa Golden, a spokeswoman for the company, said Friday. "This is usually the main break pattern we see in January or February."
The majority of the 4,000 miles of line are 6-inch or 8-inch pipes in residential neighborhoods, so the break on Lindbergh, which happened Thursday, was unusual. Workers sealed off the line during the night and worked Friday to patch the area near the southbound lane of Lindbergh Boulevard at Conway Road.
Thousands of customers had low pressure or no water at the time of the initial break, and by Friday morning about 50 to 70 customers still lacked water. One street got a temporary line, and the water company delivered bottled water to some customers. All customers had water by Friday afternoon.
More and more water pipes are breaking in the county, in the city and in water systems around the county, where many systems face a problem of aging pipes, said Golden.
In 1990, the county had 1,941 breaks. In 1995, that rose to 2,528 breaks. In 1999, that rose to the county's record of 3,264 breaks. This year seems more promising: the company has had 2,784 breaks to date.
"It's a big system, and it's been functioning in St. Louis County, some parts of it, for close to 75 years. Once the cold temperatures hit, the strain on the pipes is too much."
About two-thirds of main breaks in the county occur in pipes installed before 1957.
In the city, where some of the system's 1,500 miles of pipes are about 150 years old, water main breaks are down from 414 breaks last year to 324 so far this year. In the past, breaks have risen annually. December 1999 had 61 breaks; this December has seen 83 breaks as of Friday.
Tom Rothermich, a water distribution executive for the city of St. Louis' Water Division, said ice in the area's rivers this season has made water that flows into the area's pipes colder, a little above 34 degrees. The cold makes sometimes sensitive iron pipes even more sensitive to breaks.
"It's like when you take a cold plate out of the refrigerator and you drop it, it may crack. If you take a plate out of the freezer and you drop it, it shatters. This is what's happening."
Weather is the main factor in water main breaks, and even too much summer heat or a too dry or too rainy season can put stress on pipes. If too many people use water during dry spells, the extra pressure can cause pipes to burst.
The Missouri-American Water Co. says it replaces about five to seven miles of water mains a year. The company is working with the state's public service commission to gradually replace more miles of pipes annually so it stays ahead of the broken pipe game.
Reporter Valerie Schremp: E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org 314-862-2188
-- Martin Thompson (email@example.com), December 30, 2000