Water Leaks and Outages: Frequently Asked Questions
Water leaks and outages affect all water systems. Starting in 2021, however, our system began seeing a significant increase in such incidents, especially in South Elkins. That year, Elkins water system workers responded to dozens of leaks in South Elkins. Although many of these leaks were repaired “under pressure” and did not require water to be turned off, that part of our city experienced 19 water outages during 2021.
There are various factors contributing to this situation, and fully addressing all of them will take a significant amount of time and money.
Read on for answers to frequently asked questions about why this is happening and what we are doing about it. (While you’re at it, please consider signing up for City of Elkins Nixle alerts so you can receive advance notification of water outages, in addition to other important emergency information.)
Why have there been so many water leaks and outages during 2021?
One major reason is that many underground water lines throughout Elkins are past their end-of-life and need to be replaced. Starting in 2021, however, the area of South Elkins (First Ward) saw a significant spike in such problems.
Factors contributing to the spike in South Elkins include:
- Corroded cast-iron water pipes long past end of life (true in many parts of the city)
- Exceptionally soft, unstable soil (specific to South Elkins)
- Further destabilization of that soil by the extensive excavation work for the 2021 sewer/stormwater separation project (specific to South Elkins)
Why is water turned off for most of South Elkins during repair work?
The issue here is the small number of functioning valves throughout our water system.
Valves are used to turn off the flow of water to certain sections of the system. In a perfectly designed system, it would be possible to isolate small sections of the city during repair work, interrupting water service only on a few blocks.
Unfortunately, design practices in past eras did not require as many valves as would be considered standard today. Many of the valves that were installed are also at end-of-life and starting to fail. As a result, to use the example of South Elkins, crews often have no choice but to secure the 12-inch main under Davis Avenue that is the primary connection between this part of the city and the rest of the system. Even though this valve is at the northern edge of the area, just south of the train tracks, securing this main can cause low or no water pressure as far away as Riverview.
Why do water workers sometimes repair leaks “under pressure”?
To avoid interrupting water service to homes and businesses, water system employees try to make repairs “under pressure” as often as possible. This is when crews try to apply patches or clamps without turning off the water at a valve. The upside of this is that water service does not get interrupted. The downside is that our employees must work in spraying water. This is sometimes not practical, and, during cold weather, simply not safe.
What is being done to further reduce the need for widespread water outages in South Elkins?
To address the problem of needlessly widespread water outages, water system employees are installing five new valves in key locations throughout South Elkins. In order to avoid the outages that would typically be required during the traditional process of valve installation, these installations are being performed as insertion valves, a technique where valves are installed on a live water line without the need to shut the water off. This method is more expensive than traditional methods but is being used to avoid additional inconvenience for an area of the city that has already seen a great deal of disruption to its water service.
What is the long-term solution to the problems created by aging water lines?
Reducing the number of water-main breaks will require widespread replacement of the failing lines, a project that will likely take the better part of a decade and cost tens of millions of dollars. We do not currently have the funds necessary to accomplish this. However, as a first step, council recently dedicated a share of the city’s ARPA funds allotment to retaining an engineering firm to formulate a plan for this project. (Read more about council’s prioritization of ARPA funds for infrastructure projects here.)
Where can the city obtain the funds for water-line replacement?
City officials are monitoring the possibility that federal funds might become available for this project as a result of the various infrastructure bills under consideration in D.C. Barring the availability of special funds of this nature, however, the only legally allowed source of funds for a West Virginia public water utility is the rates paid by customers. In other words, if federal infrastructure money is not made available for this project, widespread replacement of water lines would eventually require a rate increase. (Read more here about how utilities are funded in West Virginia.)
How can I receive advance notification of water outages?
We can’t predict when a pipe will spring a leak, but we can almost always get the word out that we are investigating a leak at least an hour before we actually turn the water off. Exceptions exist, such as if a truck shears off a hydrant and someone’s basement is being flooded. But in most cases, we plan to provide at least an hour’s warning and usually a few hours.
The purpose of this warning is to allow residents to fill bathtubs, finish showers, and make other preparations for a period of low or no water pressure until repairs are complete.
To receive these warnings via text message, customers must sign up for City of Elkins Nixle alerts.
The city’s Nixle alerts, which always begin with the word “Elkins,” are sent by city personnel over the Randolph County OEM Nixle system. Customers who already receive countywide Nixle alerts will still need to sign up separately to receive City of Elkins alerts.
The signup page to receive City of Elkins Nixle alerts is here: www.cityofelkinswv.com/emergency-text-notifications.
Customers needing assistance signing up for this service should email the Office of External Affairs: email@example.com.
How should I prepare if I receive notification of an imminent outage?
This will vary according to household needs. In general, you may wish to fill water bottles and other containers (pots/pans, for example) with water you can use later. You may also want to fill your bathtub and keep a pitcher nearby to help with flushing your toilet. It may be a good idea to get showers and baths out of the way–but keep in mind that water could be interrupted without further notice.
What if a fire started during one of these widespread outages?
These outages result not from the water-main break but from turning off the water at a valve. If there were a fire and hydrants were needed in an affected area, we would simply reenergize the valve and restore service. Although this would cause the broken pipe to start leaking again, this would obviously be acceptable because of the need to protect life and property from fire.
Why doesn’t the city announce when water repairs are projected to be complete?
Put simply, we just don’t know. For example, especially due to the extremely brittle cast-iron pipes prevalent in South Elkins, sometimes turning the water on after one leak triggers another, which can as much as double repair times. It is just not practical to try to accurately predict repair times.
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