Replacement of aged water mains, potholes a challenge

When city firefighters had to tap into a fire hydrant with more powerful force a block and a half away from a recent intentionally-set house fire on Newberry Street, it heightened awareness of the need to replace old water mains and low-flow hydrants.

And when city motorists starting to write letters and call in complaints their cars were thrown out of alignment when driving on Arch Street, Williamsport Municipal Water and Sanitary Authority took notice.

The nagging infrastructure issues surfaced again this week as the authority met and planned improvements.

“If I lived in that was my neighborhood, I would be concerned,” city Bureau of Fire Chief Dean Heinbach said after the fire on Newberry Street required firefighters to transition from a hydrant spilling out a measly 200-gallons-of-water-per-minute, far below the 1,000 gallons per minute necessary to adequately suppress the fire, to a higher-flow hydrant on Hillside Ave.

“We know as firefighters we should take a better hydrant that is part of a better main,” he said. “The reality is firefighters’ first responsibility is to save lives and then do search and rescue if needed.”

Meanwhile, the water main replacement project beneath Newberry Street isn’t scheduled to happen until 2015, said Charles Hauser, director of engineering with the authority.

That timeline isn’t doing anything to alleviate concerns of the residents or the fire department of what might take place in the interim.

“Basically, they are saying for two or more years you’re still going to be in jeopardy,” Heinbach said of those living along West Fourth Street, west of Cemetery Street, including Newberry and Grand streets. “Our first priority is life safety,” he said, adding that firefighters often need to go to a hydrant nearest to them to fight fires to prevent injury or death.

Hauser said the low-flow hydrants work, by providing 500-gallons-or-less, but he acknowledged they don’t give what the high-flow ones do. He also asked for understanding and patience and said he is working closely with Heinbach on solutions to the problem.

“As these water system improvements are nearing completion, the authority apologizes for any inconveniences, and asks for continued patience as the contractor works to finish the final street restorations,” Hauser said of projects, including the main replaced beneath Arch Street.

To give some solace, he said, the contractor and the paving subcontractor are preparing to mill and pave the remaining areas with the final wearing course of asphalt, a job should be done, possibly by next month.

Heinbach said he can appreciate authority’s construction schedule, but worries about properly functioning water supplies while the projects continue.

Since 2008, when a Thanksgiving-eve fire on West Fourth Street occurred and a hydrant at Ridge Avenue didn’t supply adequate amounts of water, Heinbach said he has been stressing their replacement as a priority.

Hauser said repairing and replacing aged water mains, some 50-to-100-years-old, has proven a challenge and isn’t cheap.

“We have 280 miles of water main, in our city and surrounding townships, some of which need to be replaced,” he said. The first two phases of water main improvements in Newberry, for example, when completed are expected to cost about $8 million, he said. “It cost $1.3 million to do roughly one mile of pipe.”

The authority is working closely with the fire departments and has developed a map to color-code hydrants, according to Hauser.

“The firefighters are aware of the color codes,” he said.

The hydrants painted red have the least amount of flow, green are in the middle with 1,000-gallons-per-minute or more and light blue, 1,500-gallons-per minute, he said.

Meanwhile, the city budget only provides $15,000 annually for repair of hydrants, according to Heinbach.

At $2,000 to $3,500 per hydrant replacement, that’s five hydrants a year, he said.