Grid Shutdown: Water Main Breaks

A water main break is by far the most common service disruption. They are not going to cause the entire system to be shut down unless the water main is the main feeder from the water source. If it is a typical water main then it is more appropriate to be thought of as a line shutdown as opposed to a grid shutdown. Breaks can be caused by poor construction, changes in temperature, using a fire hydrant improperly and people digging without knowing what’s beneath them.

Water main breaks are usually found when the pressurized water breaks the surface. This can sometimes wash out roads if the water main is big enough. It can be quite spectacular when large volumes at high pressure are released. One thing to point out here is that the break may be up to a mile from where the water breaks surface. The water will always take the easiest path. Sometimes it is easier to follow the void around the pipe then break to the surface.

Sometimes there are leaks that never reach the surface. Every system has these kind of leaks. In fact we assume we have small leaks even when there is no evidence that we do. This assumption reminds me to keep pressure high so no ground water will leach into the potable water system. You may have guessed at this point a small leak doesn’t lead to a grid shutdown.

When a break occurs this is what I feel people should do. The first thing is to not panic. If it is just one water main break then the water will most likely be back on the same day. If there is a water main break at an inconvenient time, rest assured that we didn’t schedule it just to interfere with your plans. I once had someone call me during a break on a long weekend, he felt the need to express his displeasure that he couldn’t have a shower after working on his deck all day. I was not impressed, I asked him, if he was at home and if he got to do most of what he had planned today. Of course he said yes and yes he had. Then I explained that my day had been completely changed by this, I was not at home with my family and nothing I had planned was even started. I asked him what he would have me do to speed things up and asked him how he felt this phone call would help me finish faster. He apologized for his behavior. I will say I was not rude and I didn’t raise my voice, I only mention the story to point out that not having one shower is not that bad, if that is the worst thing that happens then you are still way ahead of the game.


The next thing you should do is fill your bathtub and sinks with water. This may not be possible as most people discover something is wrong when the pressure drops and the water stops flowing. This is a perfect reason to have a backup source of water. Everyone in the affected area who isn’t prepared will go buy bottled water. Save yourself the headache, plan ahead.


After the crew responsible for the system makes the repair, they will perform a pressure test to see if the repair will hold. The next step it to chlorinate the section that was shutdown with super chlorinated water. If you take water at this time (your faucets will work now) make sure that you boil the water first to remove the chlorine. You will be able to smell chlorine, and it will be strong. The super chlorinated water will stay for up to one hour. The next thing that will happen is the repaired section is flushed and all the super chlorinated water is removed. This usually takes around fifteen minutes.


The final step is confirmation that the water is safe to drink with two consecutive bacteriological samples. One of these samples is taken immediately and the other one is taken twenty-four hours later. Each sample takes forty-eight hours to analyze, so the entire ordeal won’t be done until three days or 72 hours after the break occurs. If you want to be extra cautious, continue to boil all drinking water for these 72 hours. This is not something I do myself, I drink the water straight away after the super chlorinated water is flushed, as the water is clean at this point if the job was done correctly.

The first thing you should do once your water is back on is open a faucet that has no strainer. These are usually found in laundry tubs, garden hoses and bathtubs. Aerators, strainers and shower heads can get clogged with sediment from the break. If you forget this step, you can remove the strainer or shower head and clean it out yourself. Save yourself a plumber’s bill and do it yourself. To recap, a water main break is a minor and localized shutdown of the water system. Their consequences are easily mitigated with storing a small amount of drinking water for everyone in your house, including pets. With this one, the water will be back on shortly, a little preparation will mean you will barely notice the disruption.


5 thoughts on “Grid Shutdown: Water Main Breaks

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