A dump truck traveling east on S.R. 56 spashes water as Sedam Contracting’s equipment operator John Gilpin fills sand bags for use at a water line leak Monday morning near the entrance to River Chase Golf Course in Madison. (Courier staff photo by Mark Campbell)
A dump truck traveling east on S.R. 56 spashes water as Sedam Contracting’s equipment operator John Gilpin fills sand bags for use at a water line leak Monday morning near the entrance to River Chase Golf Course in Madison. (Courier staff photo by Mark Campbell)
Commuters entering and leaving downtown Madison Monday morning put on a splashing show as water bubbling up from a water main leak along S.R. 56 flowed across the roadway.

As the traffic splashed through, contractors had begun to stage their equipment to fix the problem, which first became visible late last week.

Monday’s job is just another in a long line of water leaks communities have been experiencing as last summer’s drought has been followed by rain and colder weather, said John Gilpin, an equipment operator for Sedam Contracting Inc. of Hanover.

“People just don’t realize how much the earth moves depending on the weather and soil conditions,” said Gilpin, noting that drought and heavy rain as well as heat and cold all cause shifts in the soil and that impacts the lines that carry the water — especially older lines like those serving some areas of downtown Madison.

City of Madison Utility Manager Brian Jackson said water leaks are to be expected and the one vehicles splashed through Monday on S.R. 56 near the entrance to River Chase Golf Course was not even a big leak compared to most.

“That was not that big of a leak down there even though it probably looked like a big leak with all the water splashing,” Jackson said. “We have bigger leaks all the time. We once had one that leaked right into a storm sewer that emptied into a creek that went on for no telling how long until one of our guys who was by the creek smelled chlorine and knew we had a leak. It was probably leaking 500,000 gallons a month.”

Jackson said water lines are pressurized — that’s how residents have sufficient flow when they turn on their faucets and how the water is kept from contamination — and any time a line is pressurized it will sooner or later leak.

“The national average is 19% to 20% loss through leaks,” Jackson said. “That means some cities are losing 30% or 40% and others may be losing just 16% or 17% but everybody is losing something. There’s no way you’re ever not going to have leaks.”

Gilpin said Sedam had been contracted for the repair by the city and there were two lines in the area of Monday’s repair — a 2-inch and a 6-inch — and he wouldn’t know which one or if both were involved until he excavated the site. The repair would likely take about a day to complete but, by keeping the line pressurized, residents and businesses could continue to have water service.

Although the line is located close to S.R. 56, contractors expect there should also be enough room to work without detouring and reducing traffic to one lane.

Jackson said the city is currently repairing two breaks in downtown Madison — the other is on Third Street — but that repairs should be able to be made without depressurizing lines so customers can avoid service interruptions and boil advisories. He said boil advisories can impact residences, businesses and schools depending on how much area is impacted. No advisory has been issued in Monday’s breaks.

He reaffirmed Gilpin’s assessment on the impact of weather on utilities like water, noting that extremely dry summers are as hard on water systems as extremely cold weather and both are less than optimal for avoiding problems for the city or homeowners.

“Dry weather, when the soil settles and it’s really dry, the soil tends to crack more and that puts pressure on our pipes,” Jackson said. “Most of the leaks homeowners have are due to winter cold where they’ve not got enough heat on the line and the line freezes and then leaks when it thaws.

“About the only thing they can do is better insulate their homes around the foundation,” Jackson said of heading into the cold season. “There are also some pipes that are more resistant to freezing. PEX pipe is more resistant to freezing than old-time copper or PVC. PEX will expand a lot while copper and PVC are more likely to break.”