SALEM — If city residents think they’ve been seeing crews from the Salem Utilities Department digging a lot lately, they’re not wrong.
In fact, last month Salem broke a record for water main breaks in January, topping off at 17, which is one more than the 16 breaks recorded in January 2003.
It’s also the second highest number of water main breaks in one month overall in the past 32 years, only surpassed by the 20 water main breaks recorded in February 2007.
This February is off to a rousing start with four water main breaks in the first four days of the month. Combined with January’s numbers, that’s 21 breaks already — over two-thirds the amount of breaks in all of 2021, which had 30 total.
“It’s unavoidable,” Salem Utilities Superintendent Don Weingart said.
Looking at the records since 1990, water main breaks are synonymous with winter, just like snow, ice and cold temperatures. The highest number of water main breaks occur in the colder months of November, December, January and February historically. Sometimes March will join in, too.
Since 1990, there have been 239 water main breaks in the month of January and 182 in the month of February (as of Feb. 4 this year). The numbers drop to 173 for the month of December, 133 for November and 69 for March.
According to yearly records since 1974, the highest number of water main breaks occurred in 2007 with 54. In the timeframe from 1974 to 1989, the highest number occurred in 1988 with 35 and the lowest was 1979 with 13. From 1990 to 2006, the highest number was 46 in 2002 and the lowest was 17 in 2006. Since 2007, the lowest number of breaks reported was 27 in 2019.
For most of the water leaks this year, winter crack has been listed as the issue.
“Like taking a lead pencil and breaking it,” Weingart said. “Cast iron is a brittle metal, so it gets cracks.”
He said it’s not the temperature of the ground but the temperature of the water as it’s traveling through the pipe that can cause issues in winter, along with electrolysis and the aging infrastructure. Some of the cast iron pipes in Salem date back to the late 1800s.
Electrical current travels into the ground and onto the steel or cast iron and eats away at the metal over time, causing cracks that break.
Locations of the water main breaks last month included Barclay Street, Southeast Boulevard, Mound Street, Carole Drive, Fair Avenue, Oak Street, Benton Road, Stewart Road, West Fifth, West Eighth, East Euclid, Springdale, Jefferson Avenue, Manor Drive and North Lincoln Avenue. This month so far the breaks have occurred at Jennings and West Fifth, Liberty Street, Edgewood Drive and Rea Drive.
“Often you repair one leak and when you put the full pressure back on, it sets off another leak,” Weingart said.
On January 19, crews repaired a crack on Benton Road, then had a blow out in the same area. Sizes of the lines have ranged from 4 inches to 10 inches, with the majority 6-inch lines. The times of the breaks have come as early as 4 a.m. and as late as 11:30 p.m. Water loss at each site has ranged from 1,800 gallons to 50,000 gallons. Most do not result in customers losing water service. The time it takes to fix a break varies, too.
“That’s one of the big complications of water (line) breaks in the street. Sometimes they’re very hard to locate,” Weingart said.
Once the leak is found, the fix can involve sliding a stainless steel clamp over the broken part or in some cases involves cutting out the piece of pipe and replacing it with a plastic pipe clamped at both ends.
In an effort to combat electrolysis, Weingart said ductile iron pipe used for new lines or replacement of lines is wrapped with plastic which can act as an insulator against the electrical current. This is what the crew did when a line was recently extended in the area of Bricker Farm Lane and Orchard Bend.
The city water system consists of 110 to 120 miles of pipes. Weingart said it would not be affordable to replace all the infrastructure. It would be nice, he said, but too costly. Instead, the department is gradually replacing the pipes. Some of the recent projects have included Aetna between South Broadway and Ellsworth, Franklin between Lincoln and Broadway, and North Ellsworth from Eighth Street to the city limits.
Weingart had high praise for the utilities department workers who fix the breaks, saying “we have a very good crew right now.”
Residents can help out if they notice a suspected leak by calling the department at 330-337-8723 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday. After hours, contact the police department at 330-337-7811.