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Cold temps and old pipes explain uptick in water main breaks, city says

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Tara Jeffrey

Aging infrastructure and frigid weather are to blame for a slew of water main breaks wreaking havoc in Sarnia’s south end this month.

City engineering director Mike Berkvens says public works crews have been working around the clock to tend to dozens of water main breaks as temperatures plunge and frost penetrates the ground.

“When moisture freezes, it expands. So it actually shifts the earth and the gravel underneath, and affects the water mains,” Berkvens explained, pointing to some 40 breaks — including 16 in one day — in the first two weeks of the year.

That’s more than half the total number of 2016 water main breaks, which reached a mere 71.

“It all depends on the winters. Over the past couple of years, we’ve had fairly mild winters, so the frost doesn’t go into the ground as much,” Berkvens explained, adding the majority of breaks occur in January, February and December.

“Even when the temperatures warm up [like last week] the frost will still penetrate into the ground. It won’t stop until we get some really mild days.”

Berkvens noted that contractors have been brought in to help relieve exhausted day and night crews, working mostly in the city’s south end where infrastructure is much older.

“It certainly does increase our costs at the beginning of the year; that’s why, in the summer, we watch our maintenance, and if there’s a way to do less, we’ll watch our budget and plan for winter when we can.”

Flushing water mains may result in ‘cloudy’ looking water, he added, but it shouldn’t last long.

“Some of the air stays in the system and increases the amount of oxygen in the water,” he said. “If you fill a glass and let it sit, you’ll see the oxygen dissipate.”

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