Butler County cities have aging water mains, and they’re scrambling to update them as breaks happen

Around 500,000 gallons of water flowed over a three-hour span out of a Seward Road water main Wednesday morning after the pipe broke, according to the Fairfield’s Public Utilities director.

It was likely because of “corrosive soil” that compromised the 32-year-old water pipe, said Director Adam Sackenheim. But the break was not uncommon.

Over the past year, there have been six to eight water main breaks along this stretch of road between Port Union Road and Symmes Road/Union Centre Boulevard, he said.

“This pipe was installed in 1987, so it’s not old per se but rather it’s the soil conditions,” Sackenheim said.

INITIAL STORY: Official: Fairfield water main break lost hundreds of gallons per minute

Most of the city’s water main pipes are 45 to 65 years old. Water mains along many of the city’s priority thoroughfares — Ohio 4, Pleasant Avenue, Hicks Boulevard — have been replaced in recent years, and about 10 miles of the city’s 200 miles of pipe have been replaced over the past decade, Sackenheim said. The city has spent millions of dollars in replacing water main lines and will spend another $1.25 million this year and another $1 million next year to replace more.

“We’re putting a lot of money into replacing the problematic water mains, but the reality is we have almost 200 miles of pipe and we have to be very strategic (in how we replace it),” he said, adding it costs about $200 to $250 per foot to install new water main pipe.

There were 72 water main breaks citywide in 2018, and Sackenheim said “that number has been increasing pretty much every year for the last decade.”

Neighboring communities have similar issues regarding water main breaks.

Last month, Hamilton had to fix a massive water main break to its Third Street pipe, a 24-inch-wide pipe that is about a dozen feet underground. Public Works Director Jim Williams said that pipe is one of the oldest in Hamilton and services part of Butler County. The plan is to replace that pipe,which is between a quarter- to a half-mile long, this year.

RELATED: Crews working on large water main break on Third Street in Hamilton

“The majority of the water main breaks are due to extremely cold and extremely hot temperatures,” he said. “Those changes in the weather can cause movement in the ground and that can crack the main.”

Hamilton has 300 miles of water pipe, and most was installed between the 1900s and 1960s. There were 68 water main breaks in 2018.

“We’ve been really lucky we haven’t had more failures based on the age of our system,” Williams said.

Fairfield crews respond to Wednesday's break, but work did not immediately start because of underground utilities, including Duke Energy electric and gas lines and the city's water lines. Also, the city had to contact the Ohio Utilities Protection Service before digging.

“It’s just too dangerous to start (digging) before the utilities are marked,” said Fairfield Public Utilities Director Adam Sackenheim.

Crews try to make repairs “under pressure,” Sackenheim said, and if the hole in the ground or roadway is filling with water faster than crews can work, then the pressure is “throttled down.”

If water supply has to be shut off — which is usually the case when the pipe has to be cut due to the severity of the break — then a boil water advisory is issued, hydrants are flushed and water is tested to ensure it’s not been contaminated.

“We try not to shut down the road, but (Wednesday) it made sense” because the road began to buckle, he said.

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