Water woes: Prolonged cold leads to Kingsport line breaks

Rick Wagner • Jan 2, 2018 at 5:30 PM

KINGSPORT — Cold weather has led to at least 15 broken water lines in the Model City since Dec. 29, two of which were the responsibility of customers.

Homeowners can leave their water running just a bit at night, plug up leaks, temporarily block foundation vents or resort to heated pipe wraps.

However, the breaks in the case of city pipes are not caused by water freezing as most home cold weather water breaks are. Instead, according to Chad Austin, Kingsport director of distribution and collection lines, the supply lines break when soil shifts because of the extended freezing temperatures and breaks water lines in weak spots. He works for the city’s Water Services Division.

“We’ve had some but nothing big,” Austin said Tuesday.

“It gets cold, the ground shifts a bit and the pipe breaks,” Austin said. “We started having issues Thursday.” 

He said in one case, water from a broken main got onto a roadway and froze, requiring city crews to go out with road salt to melt the ice. In most cases, however, he said the breaks are reported by customers who experience low or no water pressure or see water coming to the surface.

To report a leak during regular, non-holiday weekday work hours,  8 a.m. to 5 p.m, call (423) 229-9416. Other times and days, call (423) 246-9111, which is central dispatch.

What about leaks on the customer’s side of the water meter?

As for water leaks on the customer side of the water meter, he said in many cases the prolonged cold can freeze pipes in unheated crawl spaces, cellars or basements. The plumbing codes in this region require that pipes be at least 18 inches underground, which is just below the freeze line for the Southeast.

Austin and the American Red Cross said homeowners can take the following precautions during cold weather to protect pipes from freezing:

— Leave a stream of water running at inside spigots. If possible, the spigot needs to be the last one on the water feed so the water will keep moving throughout the pipes. “Keep water running,” Austin said. “You need to know how your water runs so it runs through to the end and doesn’t get frozen.”

— Unhook water hoses from outside spigots and be sure the water is drained from the hose and spigot. Freeze-proof spigots have the shutoff washer 12 inches or more away from the outside handle, which usually protects the spigot from the freezing of extreme cold. Older or non-freeze-proof spigots usually have a small drain plug inside just after an inside shutoff. Cut off the inside shutoff value and then let the line going outside drain completely through the small drain plug before retightening it.

— Place a piece of insulation over your water meter, which is located under a metal cover usually at the front of the house near the sidewalk. He said this isn’t necessary on most meters because they are set down a bit, but he said doing so won’t hurt anything or interfere with meter reading since meters are read remotely.

Homeowners also can use foam pipe covers or heated pipe tape and block holes in foundation walls or temporarily block foundation vents.

However, when faced with frozen pipes or a leak potentially caused by frozen pipes, homeowners should be careful in trying to thaw the pipes because often the ice avoids a gushing water leak and using torches to thaw pipes also can damage pipes and cause fires. Hair dryers can be used to help thaw frozen pipes.

In situations where it is uncertain if the leak is on the city or customer side, Austin said city workers will come out and check. 

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