ASK ELi TO INVESTIGATE: Why So Many Water Main Breaks?

Friday, November 28, 2014, 9:42 am
Alice Dreger

Image: East Lansing DPW crews fix a sewer problem. Courtesy of City of East Lansing.

A reader asks: "Why does East Lansing keep having all these water main breaks—this summer, Grand River Avenue; last winter, Forest Avenue; and recently Harrison Road?"

The quick answer: There haven’t been more than usual in the last year. East Lansing typically has about 40 to 60 water main breaks in a given year, and there has not been a spike recently. Public awareness of water main breaks is up, so this is probably why there is a perception that we’re having more than usual. This is explained further below.

What’s involved in a water main break? To learn the answer above, and to learn more in general about East Lansing water main breaks, I spoke to Ron Lacasse, Infrastructure Administrator in the East Lansing's Department of Public Works (DPW).

Lacasse explains that a water main is “a ductile iron pipe that transfers treated water from the water treatment plant to homes and businesses around the city.” A number of water mains in East Lansing, especially in the older parts of town, are 75-100 years old, which is about as long as one can expect them to last, so at that age these pipes can be relatively fragile.

There are several reasons water mains can break:

  1. Corrosive soils can eat away at a pipe’s exterior.
  2. Stresses on the land caused by weather can cause shifts that can break underground pipes. For example, if you go from a very dry summer to a very wet fall, the sudden ground swelling from the water can cause pipes to be subject to a lot of stress. In the winter, frost heaves (the kind that crack sidewalks) can crack pipes.
  3. Small faults running through the area’s geology can cause land to shift and pipes to crack.

The last reason I actually learned not from Lacasse but from DPW crews who have had to come out and fix water main breaks regularly in our neighborhood, Oakwood. The Grand Ledge moraine (explained to ELi by MSU Geographer Alan Arbogast) that runs through Oakwood seems to involve a small fault that can shift just enough to break pipes at the crests of Evergreen, Forest, and Sunset.

Who fixes East Lansing’s water main breaks, and how? East Lansing’s own DPW workers fix water main breaks, day and night, weekends and holidays—whenever we need them. Says Lacasse, “I would like to put a plug in for the crews. Imagine it’s two in the morning and you get the call. You have to go out in the freezing cold to deal with a lot of water. It’s a tough job and the crews do a great job for the City.” As someone who has seen these crews working at midnight in single-digit temperatures, I have to agree that the crews do tough work to restore East Lansing homes and businesses as quickly as possible. The crews in our neighborhood have also invariably been very kind to the children who gather to watch the excitement.

How do they make the fix? According to Lacasse, “A lot of breaks can be fixed by digging up the area and putting a stainless steel clamp around the broken section. Sometimes we have to cut out the broken a section of pipe and sleeve in a new section.”

Lacasse estimates that it costs about $2,000 to fix the typical water main break, and that cost is mostly overtime pay because normal work hours come to only 40 of a week’s 168 hours. As Lacasse notes, “Unfortunately water main breaks don’t respect our weekend and holiday schedule.” Even if a break happens during normal working hours, because DPW has to wait for Emergency Miss Dig to give the okay to dig, and because the typical break takes 6-8 hours to fix, there’s almost always overtime pay involved. The City budgets every year for these expected costs.

So why is public awareness of water main breaks up? The electrical power outage last winter caused a surge in the number of East Lansing residents signed up for Nixle, the local emergency notification system. That’s probably why people think there have been more water main breaks than usual—not because there have been, but because they get texts and emails now when it happens (because it causes road closures and Nixle notifies people of emergency road closures). Says Lacasse, “The City desires to keep people informed and Nixle is one of the ways we do that.”

You can sign up for Nixle at:


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