Guest Column | December 6, 2017

Let's Make Water Infrastructure Winter-Ready

Archis Ambulkar

By Archis Ambulkar

Picturesque autumn season is almost over as we get ready to welcome the winter. The mercury is dropping and the arrival of festivities in December are noticeable with increased shopping, vacations, and family gatherings. While people enjoy seasonal change and wait for the first snowfall of the season, public works professionals are gearing up for the upcoming winter. Frosty environments can be challenging as cold temperatures, snowstorms, and icy conditions followed by power outages, traffic jams, flooding from snow-melts, and so on take their toll on public life and disrupt day-to-day activities. Provisions made ahead of time help to deliver quicker responses to potential inclement weather.

Considering weather unpredictability, the winter planning process is indeed a daunting task. Planners need to rely on climate forecasts as well as historical data for temperatures and snowfalls in the region. Snowstorms arrive with hefty price tags, and municipal departments need to allocate sufficient revenues and resources towards salt, labor, snow removal, outages, infrastructure repairs, and damages to tackle them. Winter budgets can be reviewed for different scenarios (such as below-average, average, and above-average conditions). Based on the background information and experiences from past financial plans, decisions can be made towards the forthcoming preparations. Despite well-laid plans, it’s possible that unusual winter weathers can overshoot municipal budgets. In such cases, backup financial provisions shall be made for unexpected expenditures via reserves, surplus funds, or other funding resources.

Like many priorities, winterization of public water and sewer systems is a key aspect for the cold-weather scenario. To ensure uninterrupted services, these utilities shall be protected and upgraded as necessary for below-freezing temperature operations. Otherwise, harsh winters can significantly impact functioning of the water and wastewater infrastructures. Freezing, bursting, breaking, leaking, and clogging are just few examples to list. Water volume expands as it freezes, thus exerting pressure on the surrounding pipes and equipment. Pipe bursts result in significant water release and wastage. As such, stationary water is more prone to freezing than running water systems.

Sewers usually avoid ice formation due to the thermal protection from buried pipes and warmer wastewater discharges by users to the sewerage systems. However, severe conditions can lead to sewers freezing and clogging as well. Sewers with materials buildup can contribute towards the freezing issue. Improper installations, lack of insulation, or faulty systems aggravate these problems. Frozen sewer pipes quickly turn into an unhygienic and messy issue to deal with when pipelines cracks. Sewer vent blockages, reduced pipe flows, increased odors, and frozen septic tanks are other downsides of wintry conditions.

Frost buildup, clogging, wetting, and unusual sounds are some of the indicators of pipe or equipment freezing. Thawing via heat application with pads, dryers, heaters, hot water, or steam can assist with the ice-melting process. Thaw times can vary depending upon complexity of the problems, technique used, location, accessibility, size, and extent of freezing. It’s important that the systems regain their original pressures and flows upon melting.

Public works departments may experience an increased number of calls from customers for systems malfunctioning, service disruptions, and associated emergencies during storms events. Resolving and fixing them in a timely manner becomes a vital aspect to avoid major hassles and inconveniences for the public. In terms of field challenges, once the snowstorm wallops and covers ground, locating underground water and sewer utilities becomes difficult. Also, snowy and wintry conditions may make it hard for staff members to safely travel and service these utility structures. Such constraints create increased financial burdens and time delays for repairs and replacement.

Winter preparations may begin several months earlier and can be implemented at various stages. Installation and proper maintenance of heating systems in the buildings, rooms, and other housing structures can ensure indoor airspace above freezing. Sealing openings and gaps in the walls, doors, and windows can eliminate air drafts and leaks to reduce cold air penetrations inside the facilities. Appropriate insulation can achieve added protections. Such provisions will help to safeguard indoor equipment, pipes, and plumbing fixtures. Additionally, backup generators can assist to keep facilities and associated systems warm during power losses and outages. For outdoor applications such as exposed pipes, faucets, pumps, storage tanks, back-flow preventers, and other equipment, suitable actions like shutting off, disconnecting, draining, insulating, heating, and protectively covering can mitigate issues. Relocation of exposed pipes and equipment can provide further protection from freezing. Purchasing and maintaining special winter tools and equipment for fixing utility problems will be an important consideration.

Finally, in addition to winter preparations at administrative, managerial, technical, and operational levels, public education and awareness programs are necessary for tackling issues effectively. When storms impact larger areas, it becomes difficult to provide prompt services to each and every customer in time. In such cases, basic knowledge and understanding of the water and sewer systems can come in pretty handy for the public to temporarily alleviate problems until the expert services arrive. To ensure a safe and enjoyable winter for the public, let’s make the effort towards timely preparations for getting infrastructures winter-ready.

Archis Ambulkar is a renowned water professional and author of the well-received book “Guidance for Professional Development in Drinking Water and Wastewater Industry”, published by International Water Association, United Kingdom. He made a vital contribution towards the Oxford University’s Research Encyclopedia for the topic “Nutrient Pollution and Wastewater Treatment Systems”, and has written for numerous other international publications. Mr. Ambulkar has also participated with the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization’s Global Soil Partnership and United Nations World Oceans Assessment programs. He has served on several technical committees with organizations like Water Environment Federation, American Water Works Association, and American Society for Testing and Materials International, and has served with editorial boards of many scientific journals and technical magazines in the U.S., UK, and Canada.