FORT KENT, Maine — If this winter’s extreme cold has been tough on Maine residents, it has been just as hard on the infrastructure below their feet.
Breaks in municipal and community water mains — those pipes that transport water from its supply source to residents — because of freezing conditions are nothing new in this state. But according to some in the water utility industry, this year has been particularly bad.
“The water mains are freezing,” Steve Levy, executive director of the Maine Rural Water Association, said on Friday. “I just spoke to [a staff member] who has been with us since 2001 and he said it’s the worst year he can remember.”
Last month a broken main forced the town of Pittsfield to ask residents to conserve water. Another broken main forced the closure of the Bangor YMCA and on Thursday a broken main near John Bapst Memorial High School in Bangor forced students to go home early.
As the air temperatures drop, the ground freezes, creating a frost line between frozen and unfrozen ground. The longer the ambient temperatures remain below freezing, the deeper that frost line extends.
Currently, that line is around 5 to 6 feet deep in southern Maine and several feet deeper in northern Maine, according to Jeff McNelly of the Maine Water Utilities Association.
And that frozen ground spells trouble for water main pipes buried there.
“Generally, the longer the frost is in the ground, the more potential there is for [water main] breaks,” McNelly said. “The frost moves around and that movement can break those pipes.”
Most at risk are cast-iron mains 60 years old and older, Levy said.
“What we are noticing this year is a water main is not breaking just once,” Levy said. “We are seeing the same pipes with multiple breaks over several days.”
Levy said that on Friday he had received a call about a broken water main in Bingham.
“It was the second time in three days that pipe had broken,” he said.
Repairing those breaks in the middle of a frigid Maine winter is anything but fun, according to Levy.
“It’s difficult to do construction work in the winter,” he said. “These [water main operators] are digging holes in frozen ground and having to break through the frost to expose the pipe and there is often running water.”
The process is arduous and time-consuming, Levy said, adding, “Everyone should be nice to their water operators.”
In Caribou on Friday afternoon, Alan Hitchcock, general manager of the municipal utilities district, was finishing up supervising the repair of a broken main.
“So far, for us this year has not been extraordinary,” he said. “But I’m not surprised it’s been bad in southern Maine — we are a little more used to it up here and our infrastructure is [buried] a bit deeper.”
Hitchcock did say the frost is deeper this year than previous seasons, but so far it has not created unusual problems.
“Our water mains are typically 7 feet deep,” he said. “But if we were to get another solid month of below-zero temperatures — which I don’t expect — then things might be a little different.”
Hitchcock did say he recalled a year the frost line dropped to 9 feet.
“No, it’s not fun to be out repairing those lines in that kind of weather,” he said. “But our guys are prepared and they know what to do.”
Levy said he is aware of at least 30 water main breaks so far this season in central and northern Maine and knows there are more out there.
An Arctic cold front last week brought temperatures 20 to 25 degrees below average around Maine.
Levy and McNelly said there is still plenty of time for more water main breaks this winter.
“It’s cold and the frost will be with us for a while,” Levy said. “Even if it warms up over the next couple of days it will not be enough to take the frost out of the ground for a while.”
Meanwhile, crews around the state will keep an eye on water pressures and flows in their mains that indicate a pipe has burst.
“We are hoping before the frost gets much deeper the weather will turn,” McNelly said. “It’s time [and] we are just waiting for the weather to break.”