Cold snap is snapping water pipes in city, counties

Cold weather brings water pipe ruptures throughout the Baltimore region.

As water spurted out of a pump and flowed down North Fulton Avenue in Franklin Square, Royal Stewart stood watch and offered his secret for staying warm on cold days as a member of a Baltimore water crew: hot Lipton tea and a positive attitude.

"Crying makes you colder, but laughter warms you up," said Stewart, a Northwest Baltimore resident who is one of scores of public works employees deep in the annual winter ritual of finding and fixing broken water pipes.

The freezing cold — forecast to continue through the end of the week — has burst pipes in homes, schools and businesses across the Baltimore area. Problems were rampant, with a school in Bel Air, businesses in Aberdeen and a county government building in Westminster all affected by weather-related breaks.

The cold also ruptured aging water mains under the streets of Baltimore — including at the intersection of Baltimore and Greene streets, on a major artery for commuters out of the city.

Plumbers and public works crews responsible for cleaning up the mess said the problems weren't quite as widespread as in last year's polar vortex, but several days of bitter cold were tough on aging pipes. On Tuesday, city crews were working on about 10 major water main breaks.

There were at least another 1,100 calls from residents with broken pipes, said Kurt Kocher, a spokesman for the Baltimore Department of Public Works, which handles public water issues in the city and Baltimore County. Sometimes residential breaks must be fixed by the city; other times they're the responsibility of the homeowner, depending on where the pipe and the break are located.

Public works crews in Baltimore have been working 12-hour shifts to locate the source of breaks, turn off the water, fix the break and get water flowing again.

"It's brutal out there, having crews dealing with water in these temperatures. Even though they are protected and they have boots, when the wind's blowing 50 mph, I don't care what you've got on, it's hard," Kocher said.

In addition to sipping his hot tea and cracking jokes with crew mates, Stewart said he tries to position himself in the sunshine as much as he can.

"The most important thing is the sun," he said, pointing skyward. "It warms us up."

Crewmate Charles Byrd looks forward to getting down into the ground to fix the pipes. Believe it or not, he said, it's warmer down there.

"When the wind is blowing, the best place to be is underground," he said.

While Stewart and Byrd and their team waited for utility lines to be marked and water valves to be shut off, a few miles away, another team continued work on a water main break that has been posing problems since Friday.

At Greene and Baltimore streets — near the University of Maryland Medical Center and the Baltimore Veterans Administration Medical Center — public works employee Allen Lizer maneuvered an excavator to scoop out water and muck from a rectangular hole in the sidewalk.

Lizer thinks the problem there is not a full-blown broken pipe, but a leak.

"The system's old. The joints start leaking," he said.

Despite having worked at the site since Friday, crew members still hadn't gotten a good enough look by midday Tuesday to diagnose the problem. The downtown area is criss-crossed with all sorts of utility lines and other underground obstacles. For the Greene Street break, crews had to dig through bricks, re-route steam lines and shore up the hole before pumping water out.

While this winter's water main breaks are typical, Kocher said things will likely get worse before they get better. "When the ground thaws, you'll probably see more of these popping up," he said.

Homeowners and plumbers have been busy tending to leaks and breaks in pipes inside homes.

Keith Williams, a technician for Len the Plumber, was at a house in the Bayview neighborhood Tuesday afternoon where a pipe had burst in a basement wall the day before. Williams opened a manhole in the sidewalk outside to reach the water meter and shut it off so he could begin the work of fixing the pipe inside.

"Usually it's not so difficult to turn this off," Williams said as he struggled with a long tool to close the valve. "Useless tool," he said, throwing it aside in favor of a wrench.

Some residents in South Baltimore, where the city has begun installing new "smart" water meters, complained Tuesday that the new meters seemed to be more prone to freezing. Kocher said that's not the case.

"Meters will freeze when it's really cold," he said. "It's not new water meters or old water meters; it's water meters."

He recommended letting a thin stream of water flow from a faucet to prevent meters and pipes from freezing.

In counties surrounding Baltimore, crews were also responding pipe problems. A Bel Air private school and a Havre de Grace church hall were among Harford County buildings that dealt with bursting pipes in the frigid weather. Downtown Aberdeen businesses were without water Monday as city officials worked on a break on a 4-inch main near City Hall, according to public works director Kyle Torster.

At Harford Day School, a sprinkler rupture Monday sent water pouring down the roof and walls outside the fieldhouse, but officials said the interior was not damaged. Harford County Volunteer Fire & EMS Association spokesperson Rich Gardiner said pipe breaks and flooding occurred throughout the county over the past few days.

"All these broken water pipes are definitely weather-related," Gardiner said.

In Carroll County, cold weather caused a water main break on Center Street in Westminster. The county government building and school system headquarters were both closed Tuesday while repairs were made.

Kathy Griffin, office manager for Ken Griffin Plumbing Inc. in Howard County, said work crews answered an "unusual" number of calls for broken pipes since Sunday. On Monday, she said, 10 plumbers working 12- to 14-hour shifts ran some 50 calls.

"It's the cold, and even more, it's the wind," Griffin said. "Small drafts can cause havoc to the pipes if they are poorly insulated."

A holiday weekend where people were away from their homes, along with cold temperatures, made for a tough combination, she said. Some houses, she said, were "completely devastated."

"Sometimes people would call us with water running, you could hear it in the background," she said.

Hampden resident Emily Dierkes was home on Presidents Day while her fiance was at work when "ridiculous amounts of water" started pouring out of her ceiling.

By the time she found the water shutoff valve, "it had leaked from the second floor into the first floor into the basement. And the basement flooded three inches," said Dierkes, an artist and Towson University graduate student.

A plumber determined the home's poorly soldered copper pipes had burst in three places. For Dierkes, it was the latest unwelcome reminder of the challenges of home ownership: Right after she moved in a year ago, the toilet broke.

"We're finding out the idiosyncrasies of the house as they come," she said.

Baltimore Sun Media Group reporters Bryna Zumer, Michel Elben and Melanie Dzwonchyk contributed to this article.

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