You leave on your evening commute, only to find that water is flowing across the road between you and home. You realize it’s a water main break. What should you do? You might be tempted to ignore it. However, there are some steps you should take. For instance, if the water smells, it may be sewage – do not walk through it.
Even if a water leak is not sewage, walking through any active leak is never a good idea. Among the reasons not to walk through a roadway puddle is that there may be an unseen roadway washout or an open utility manhole cover.
Report any Water Main Break to your Utility
Although utilities do monitor water pressure and leaks, they often find out about a water main break when a resident reports it. Most water authorities have a hotline for reporting breaks, and some may also have online tools that you can use.
In NYC the 311 system is utilized to report leaks, which is both an online and an operator system. You should report the break immediately. The utility could get spammed with multiple reports, or even not find out about the break for hours. Again, while they have technological systems, resident reports are often more effective.
It’s a good idea to store the number of your utility’s hotline in your phone, especially during the winter when water main breaks are more common and can ice over. If you do lodge a complaint, be sure to keep a record of the complaint number for future reference. If you file your report via the 311 online system, you will likewise receive a 311 complaint number via email.
Be Careful Going Through any Running Water
If the water is more than a couple of inches deep, or flowing quickly, choose another route to walk or drive. Less than a foot of water is enough to damage a vehicle. One foot or more of water is enough for your car to float. While most water main breaks do not cause this level of flooding, some do. Another point of concern is that running water can mask a washout or undermine. You may think you’re stepping through a shallow puddle, only to injure yourself in a sinkhole.
If there’s only a bit of water in the roadway, drive through it slowly and use the center of the road. Using the center of the road is advised because that is the high point of any roadway. Roadways are designed to be sloped towards the curb for water runoff. Also, be careful walking through running water, as you may slip. Be aware that if you have to come back that way, the flooding may be worse, or the road might be blocked off while they conduct repairs.
In most cases, water main repairs only take a few hours, but some complex repairs may take several days. In most cases, these visible leaks of fresh water are actually broken service lines belonging to a property owner. If you are this unlucky property owner, you will have to replace your water service line.
Water Main Breaks in Cold Weather pose a Particular Danger
In cold weather, residual water may turn into ice and make the road particularly treacherous. Dangerous situations such as icing may cause the DEP to excavate and shut off the leak. In the case of a private water service line, the residents will then be without a water supply. If your water service line or the city main itself is shut, shut your main control valve as well. Closing your main control valve prevents any sediment or debris from entering your pipes when the water is turned back on. Frequently rust, sediment, or debris will dislodge when main line work is being done.
Another tip when closing your water supply line is to always close the valve closest to the inside plumbing. The reason is in case the valve fails, there is another backup valve closer to the street side of the service line. Whenever you reopen the valve when water service is restored do it very slowly, and open a sink on an upper floor. This allows for any air in your pipes to freely escape without creating a water hammer condition.
Check Notifications from your Local Water Utility
Once you get home, check with your utility via the 311 system. Always reference your complaint number with the operator or online system. In many cases, the 311 system will note if it was a water main break or flooding from another source. However, they will not typically be able to tell if you are in the area affected by the break. The water utility has ways of quickly determining whether the flood is drinking water or groundwater and will act accordingly.
In certain unique cases, the local water authority can do water testing to pinpoint if the leaking water is potable water, wastewater, or groundwater. For instance, in rural areas, unexpected water may be irrigation runoff, and construction projects can also cause flooding.
In the case of a main water line break, you should minimize your use of water until the main is repaired. You should avoid showering, watering plants, or doing laundry, if possible. And as stated above, close your main control valve for your water supply line.
What Happens If a Water Main Break is Severe?
If the break is severe, the DEP may have to turn your water off. You may also be put under a boil water advisory. A boil advisory occurs if the water utility suspects that the break caused contamination. If your water is turned off, precautions have to be taken when service is resumed. Run the cold faucets (in all sinks or tubs) for a brief period, until the water runs clear. There may be mud and dirt in the water. Make sure to run cold water, as running hot water can cause debris to end up in your hot water tank.
You should also expect there to be air bubbles in the water (as mentioned above). Air in your water lines can cause water hammer. Water hammer is the effect of water rushing through air-bound pipes and crashing against bends in the pipe, potentially blowing them apart. Therefore, when you re-open your water, do so very slowly to allow the air to escape.
In some cases, your utility may lower the pressure in the main. The lower pressure could result in a noticeable pressure loss for your faucets and shower. If you live in a high-rise building, you may also lose water in this situation. This is because some buildings have internal pumps or rooftop water tanks. Pumps may shut down when the pressure drops and rooftop tanks need time to refill.
The most important thing you should do if you notice or suspect a water main break in your neighborhood is to notify your utility. Resident reports help them make repairs quickly. You may ask yourself “Who is responsible for a water main break”. The answer is that if it is your service line, and you are a NYC resident, you are fully responsible for repairs. In that case, you should contact Balkan Sewer And Water Main Service to get a quote for the fix.