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Water lines are popping, and more are expected to do so

| Tuesday, Jan. 8, 2013, 12:02 a.m.
TheSignal Item
Emergency responders attempt to contain a water main break at the corner of Carothers and Hill streets in Scott Township late Tuesday afternoon. Randy Jarosz \ For The Signal Item
Water flows into a catch basin near a water main break on Monday, Jan. 7, 2013, that closed down one lane of Route 51 at Midwood Avenue. James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review
Penn American Water Company crews were on scene of a water main break Monday morning January 7, 2013 that closed down one lane of Route 51 at Midwood Avenue. James Knox | Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Eleven water lines have ruptured in Pittsburgh this month, and water officials expect more breaks with a major thaw coming by week's end.

Officials with the Pittsburgh Water and Sewer Authority and the Pennsylvania American Water Co. — which supply water to the city and bordering communities — say winter always brings an increase in water line breaks.

Two major breaks last week highlighted the problem. One closed a section of Fort Pitt Boulevard, Downtown, for three days and another in Bloomfield shut down a section of the East Busway and cut off water to Children's Hospital.

On Monday, Pennsylvania American Water was fixing a broken pipe on Route 51 in Overbrook that was expected to tie up traffic through the evening rush hour.

“It's mainly due to the freeze-thaw cycle,” said PWSA spokeswoman Melissa Rubin, adding that old water pipes in Pittsburgh and hilly city topography play major roles. “When it's freezing and it thaws, the ground shifts, and that causes breaks. Then when it freezes again, you'll see it again.”

People can expect more spouting water by week's end. The National Weather Service in Moon is predicting a high temperature in the 50s by Friday. The average temperature so far for January has been 26.3 degrees.

Weather Service Meteorologist John Darnley said Pittsburgh is extremely susceptible to freezing and thawing because it sits in the path of cold weather systems moving from Canada and warm, moist air coming from the Gulf of Mexico.

“We do see swings of 20 degrees in Pittsburgh,” he said. “It's something that occurs in the winter.”

Rubin said the total number of water main breaks in the PWSA system decreased from 83 in January 2010 to 65 in January 2012. She could not provide yearly totals Monday. At the current rate, this month's total would fall shy of 50.

She credited part of the decrease to an increased investment in water line replacement.

In 2009, PWSA spent $20 million on capital improvements and has averaged $30 million each year since. The other thing she noted was winters have been milder in recent years.

Gary Lobaugh, spokesman for Pennsylvania American Water, cited capital improvements as a reason for a 20 percent decrease in breaks last year over the prior year. Lobaugh said company policy prevented him from providing actual numbers.

“We'll attribute (the decrease) to investment and favorable weather,” he said.

Lobaugh said the company spent $204.5 million upgrading systems and upgrading pipelines in 2011 and 2012. Penn American spent $8.5 million since 2008 replacing 5.5 miles of old water pipes in the Banksville Road area, historically one of its worst areas for breaks, he said.

Anthony Emanuele, a Penn American Water superintendent, said Pittsburgh's topography is a major factor. He said water being pumped up and down hills causes pressure variations and weakens pipes.

The company installed pressure relief valves in critical areas to help alleviate the problem, he said.

“Mostly age, pressure and soil conditions play the biggest part in fatiguing of the pipe,” he said.

PWSA provides water and sewer services to about 300,000 customers in Pittsburgh. Pennsylvania American has about 132,000 customers in 42 Allegheny County communities, including parts of Pittsburgh.

Bob Bauder is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-765-2312 or bbauder@tribweb.com.

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