WSSC: Cold weather can cause water main breaks

WASHINGTON — The Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission says cold weather impacts water mains and breaks are more common when temperatures drop below freezing.

But Jerry Irvine,  public affairs manager at WSSC, says consumers won’t necessarily see a spike in water main breaks unless the region is hit with the conditions that brought the Polar Vortex last January.

“On two separate occasions we had sub-zero weather and we had close to 600 breaks,” in the month of January alone.

Irvine says it’s the water temperature along with the air temperature that has the greatest impact on the pipes in the WSSC system, which serves Montgomery and Prince George’s counties. The system pulls water from the Patuxent and Potomac River and when the water drops below 40 degrees, it causes contracting that can lead to fissures and breaks — especially in the older cast-iron pipes. Those older pipes, installed before 1977, are responsible for 98 percent of the water main breaks in the system, according to the WSSC website.

WSSC says 2014 was  a year that tied for the second most water main breaks, with a total of 2,080.  The largest number of breaks on record was set in 2007, with 2,129 breaks, according to WSSC.

While the WSSC can’t do anything about the weather, Irvine says the newer ductile iron pipes are more resistant to cold weather breaks.

“They’re just able to deal with contraction and expansion in a much better way and they have a lifespan of more along the line of 100 years,” says Irvine.

Another method used to fight the corrosion leading to pipe weakness is putting “poly-wrap” around them. That doesn’t insulate against cold but, as Irvine explains, it helps limit the contact with elements in the soil that lead to corrosion and weakness that can result in water main breaks.

Irvine says updating the system is key to better performance with fewer broken pipes. The WSSC has 5,500 miles of pipe in the system.

“We have a goal of 55 miles or more of replacement per year,” Irvine says.

The utility has made that goal for four years.

Click here to take a look at where water main breaks are happening in your service area.

Follow @WTOP on Twitter and WTOP on Facebook.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

Federal News Network Logo
Log in to your WTOP account for notifications and alerts customized for you.

Sign up