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Oh No! No Water!

There are few things in life we depend on more than our public water supply. That realization becomes a reality during and after big storms, electrical blackouts and water main breaks. For people living or working in hi-rise building (condos, apartments, offices, etc.) when the lights go out so do the pumps that maintain the water pressure in those buildings, unless there are backup power generators. A single family homes is no better off when the public water supply is interrupted, and private well systems suffer from the same malady ... no electrify = no water.


It can happen to you.

According to Eyewitness News WKBW the residents of Hamburg, New York went for over four days without water in late October of 2011 because of two water main breaks. What started as an inconvenience quickly became a health concern for many in the community. The Erie County Health Department issued a boil order advising people to boil their water before drinking. They also sent inspectors to make sure residents health was not in jeopardy.

Thousands of residents of my area have learned how vulnerable we are to aging water supply systems. A rash of water main breaks have made headlines in the local papers and television news programs. According to the Gazette Community News, "There were 42 breaks and leaks in the WSSC's (local utility company) water network in May alone (2007).


Water main rupture floods nearby Rock Creek Park; WUSA9 News. Fast forward one year to Jun 2008 and the situation in densely populated Montgomery County, MD reached catastrophic proportions. It was just the start of an ongoing, three-day ordeal for residents. Headlines in one newspaper shouted, "Water main breaks close 1,200 eateries". Another newspaper had the word "Crumbling" in one-inch lettering on their front page. If they had water service, residents were urged to boil their water to rid it of possible contaminants and not to flush toilets or take showers, etc. until the situation was settled. A 38-years old, 48-inch water main ruptured sending millions of gallons of water pouring into nearby Rock Creek exposing a crumbling infrastructure greatly in need of repair.. The major break also caused smaller pipes to rupture, sending water bubbling up onto roads. Last year there were a record 2,129 pipe breaks in the WSSC system according to the Washington Post and there was more in store for Montgomery County before the end of the year.

Hospitals and schools closed for lack of working flush toilets

Car caught in raging torrent of  water

In late December 2008 during the morning rush hour traffic with the temperature below freezing, a major commuter artery between Montgomery County, MD and the District of Columbia was flooded by a tsunami of water that poured from an aging 66-inch-diameter broken water main. Buried 15-feet below ground along the side of the road ( ironically named River Road), it created a 50-by-30-foot crater, trapped motorists and lead to dramatic whitewater rescues that were broadcast around the world. The ruptured main was spewing 150-thousand gallons of a water a minute for six hours; at 2 p.m. the flow was finally shut down. Steep embankments on both sides of the road confined the water to the road which made the water run deeper and faster. The broken water main presented water pressure problems for local hospitals, businesses, schools and homes. Many closed for lack of working flush toilets. Traffic was detoured for over a week until four 16-foot sections of the giant pipe were replaced and the road repaired. River Road, Montgomery County Maryland

For more on this story see:
MyFoxDC-Photos
Google News
The Washington Post
The Washington Times


Technology Averted
Another Calamity

In the midst of a prolonged heat wave over the 4th of July weekend in 2010, fiber-optic equipment identified multiple "ping" sounds — snapping wires and a precursor to a bursting pipe — inside a 40-year-old, 8-foot diameter water main in Potomac, Maryland, not far from the above mentioned 2008 break in a 66-inch water main. The failed 96-inch main is the largest in the Washington, D.C. area system. which supplies water for 1.8 million people in Montgomery and Prince George's counties. Customers were banned from using more water than absolutely necessary, and police issued $500 citations and dozens of warnings for failing to adhere to mandatory water restrictions. The restrictions include not flushing toilets after every visit, no lawn watering, and running only full dishwasher and washing machine loads. Read more at the Washington Examiner:


Like icebergs, the major part of the pressurized water pipes are out-of-sight ; some buried under roads, and many of these pipes are over 50 years old. As the pipes age and deteriorate they become susceptible to ruptures from the traffic bouncing along overhead. The ensuing floods buckle roadways, disrupt traffic, close down schools, fill basements with water, shutdown air conditioning systems in high-rise buildings, wash away gardens and lawns, leave bathrooms and kitchens without running water and leave a massive mess to cleanup.

While few households can store a large enough supply of emergency water to keep the plumbing system operating at full speed, there are some steps that can be taken to minimize the hardships. First, keep a supply of bottled water in your home for drinking purposes. Then collect, wash thoroughly, and fill bleach jugs or 2-liter soda bottles with water for other purposes. Find an out-of-the-way place to store this emergency supply of water in the basement, garage, laundry room, etc. Then periodically, change the water. I use my supply to water plants and then refill so my supply is rotated, and the water isn't wasted.

Don't be Caught Flushless

When the possibility exists that your water supply may be cut off (i.e. in anticipation of a hurricane) remember you have one more flush for each toilet, but that's it. So, to insure you are not left flushless, fill your bathtubs with water and put a large bucket next to each toilet in the house. One bucket of water dumped quickly into a toilet bowl should completely flush a toilet. If your bathtub drain leaks, smooth out and then tape a plastic grocery bag over the drain cover.

Who Pays for Cleanup?

In addition to cleaning up the mess of a water main break, a homeowner can face the cost of restoring and replacing lawns, gardens, furnishings, etc. In the case of some homeowners in Montgomery County the water company has paid for a hotel and other costs of the damage, but you shouldn't assume that will be the case in every locality. Now would be a good time to check with your insurance company to learn how you are covered. After hurricane Katrina, the folks in Louisiana and Mississippi learned that insurance companies make a distinction between falling waters, rising waters, blowing waters, sewer backups, etc.

From personal experience, I can tell you that even when the costs of a water main break are covered by insurance or paid for by the water company, the event is a nightmare that you won't soon forget.








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