January is the cruelest month.
At least that is the case for the Cedar Rapids Water Division and the integrity of its some 680 miles of underground city water lines.
Fittingly, city water crews hustled out to the 1100 block of Crestview Drive SE about 8:30 a.m. Friday after a customer reported water running in the street. Service was out for about four hours for 25 to 30 customers as crews broke through the street and dug to to the 60-year-old pipe to make the repairs.
It was the second water main break already this January, the first coming two days earlier on New Year’s Day, Megan Murphy, the city’s utilities communications coordinator, said on Friday.
According to city figures, the city’s water system has had an annual average of 13.8 breaks in water mains in January in the last nine years, the most of any month. The annual average in February of 12.9 breaks and the annual average of 12 in December followed close behind.
In the just completed month of December, city crews were called out to 19 breaks or leaks, well above average for the month and a number which Murphy attributed to a month that got cold early and stayed cold.
The longer the ground has to freeze and shift, she said, the more risk to city water mains, which sit about 5.5 feet under ground.
"And the and water in the pipes actually gets colder, too, and that can affect the pipe strength as well," Murphy said.
Next door in Marion, Todd Steigerwaldt, general manager of Marion’s Water Department, said on Friday that his crews were not called out to fix a main break over the just-completed holiday season for the first time in memory.
"Knock on wood and don’t jinx us," said Steigerwaldt. "We’re holding tight."
He credited the current cover of snow with helping to insulate the ground and keep frost from diving deeper toward the city’s water mains. Even so, he said Marion crews were called out five times in December before the holidays to repairs breaks and leaks, and he said he expected more calls in the days and weeks ahead.
April is the gentlest month for Cedar Rapids’ system of water mains, with breaks in an average of 4.3 mains during the month, while May is next best, at 4.9 breaks, according to city figures.
Cedar Rapids’ Murphy said city water crews spend some time in spring, summer and fall working to identify smaller leaks to repair them before they become breaks.
At the first report of a line break, a staff member from the Water Division’s meter crew hustles out to assess the problem and then calls out a distribution system crew to dig to the pipe and repair it. Most breaks, like Friday’s, are fixed within four hours, Murphy said.
"Our employees consider it more a duty than job," she said. "If they are not out there doing their work, people don’t’ have water."
Murphy said the some spots in the water lines of the city’s water system can have small leaks that go undetected for a year or more. But a break in a water line can gush hundreds of gallons of water on to the ground or into the street quickly and so needs to be fixed immediately, she said.
Murphy encouraged residents to keep their eyes open for signs of a water main break.
Those can include water leaking out of the ground around a metal cap stamped "water" on the top; water seeping out of the ground around a fire hydrant; water running on a city street or next to it or from a building at or near the foundation.The city will notify property owners if they spot a leak on a property owner’s service line, which the owner has responsibility to have repaired by a licensed plumber.