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Cold contributes to water main breaks in Duluth

City of Duluth utility operator Josh Carlson uses a backhoe to place gravel in a hole after repairing a water main break at the intersection of Crosley Avenue and Wyoming Street in the Lakeside neighborhood of Duluth on Tuesday. (Clint Austin /caustin@duluthnews.com)1 / 3
City of Duluth utility crews repair a water main break at the intersection of Crosley Avenue and Wyoming Street in the Lakeside neighborhood on Tuesday afternoon. (Clint Austin /caustin@duluthnews.com)2 / 3
City of Duluth utility crews placed this collar over the 6-inch pipe to repair a water main break at the intersection of Crosley Avenue and Wyoming Street in the Lakeside neighborhood on Tuesday. (Clint Austin /caustin@duluthnews.com)3 / 3

With water turning into a sheet of ice on Crosley Avenue in Duluth on Tuesday afternoon, an excavator drove past a "road closed" sign to begin digging to repair a water main break.

The break at Crosley Avenue and Wyoming Street was the second such break in the Lakeside neighborhood this week, leaving some residents without water for part of the day.

Although water main breaks can occur during summer, the winter weather contributes to more breaks and then creates challenges for crews repairing the break, said Chris Kleist, Duluth's stormwater coordinator.

"In the winter, the frost pushes further into the ground so when there's typically a temperature fluctuation, whether it's a big cold front or even a warm front, and the ground flexes, pushes down or it warms up and bounces back — that little bit of fluctuation tends to be what causes breaks," he said.

The temperature dipping below zero — as it has for most of the past 10 days — can cause a multitude of challenges. The machinery and sensors don't run as well as they should and the cold wears out batteries. It's also hard on the staff to work outside in those temperatures, Kleist said.

Utility operator Josh Carlson uses a backhoe to fill in a hole after repairing a water main break. (Clint Austin / DNT)

"Locating valves, manholes — all that is more difficult under the snow. Plus, the cold makes the snow banks harder so it's not even something you can shovel by hand in some cases. Plus, the ground is frozen. We have about three feet of frost now so just breaking through that first few feet of earth is a challenge. It takes hours sometimes," he said.

A water main break also can mean water spilling onto a roadway, which then freezes.

"Duluth is on a hillside, of course, so then you have ice on the hill, which is another challenge. Not much about winter makes it easier," he said.

A water main break at London Road and 42nd Avenue East on Monday afternoon caused water to be shut off for homes on nearby blocks, along with icy road conditions on London Road. The ice buildup around the intersection required additional plowing and sanding to ensure the area was safe for traffic.

Water was shut down from 40th Avenue East to 43rd Avenue East and excavation work began at 3:30 p.m. Monday. Water service was restored at about 3 a.m. Tuesday and the repair work was completed by 6 a.m. Tuesday, Kleist said.

At the water main break in the intersection of Crosley and Wyoming, the crew was expected to wrap up the repair around 4:30 p.m. Tuesday, with water being restored to nearby residents by early Tuesday evening. The pipe had a crack around its circumference that needed to be repaired, Kleist said. It was just a small section out of hundreds of miles of water lines in the city.

"As the ground freezes and shifts a little bit, those 450 miles of water mains can occasionally shift and snap as well," he explained.

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