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UK burst water pipes wreak havoc

Water companies across the UK have been flooded with calls from customers as the big thaw leaves Britain’s pipes burst and leaking.

Since Christmas Eve alone, one company was deluged with 40,000 calls reporting problems.

United Utilities, which operates in the North West, said the “unprecedented” volume of calls was 10 times the usual number.

And other companies said the picture was the same the length and breadth of the country.

The problems were caused by ice melting following the prolonged cold snap.

It can cause the ground to move, putting stress on pipes, causing them to leak or burst.

Above ground, frozen pipework in homes and businesses is beginning to thaw, leading to more leaks.

One problem experienced by all utility companies was customers jamming their lines to report pipes frozen in their homes.

But water companies have no responsibility for pipes in people’s houses.

“It is not unusual to see the number of bursts increase when the temperature shifts after a prolonged cold snap,” said Scott Beard, United Utilities’ regional water network manager.

“We are fully geared up, with extra call takers, engineers and specialist leak detection teams all giving up their holidays and working round the clock.”

He added: “We have also brought in additional 4X4 vehicles to make sure our engineers can get to more remote areas which are still snowbound.”

Companies are appealing to the public to help by checking on any empty properties where they hold the keys in a bid to avoid further leaks.

The thaw has caused acute problems in Northern Ireland where thousands of customers’ supplies have been cut off.

It could be early next week before all customers are reconnected.

Around an extra 250 megalitres are being pumped into the system every day, Northern Ireland Water said, but most of it is being lost in leakages from burst pipes.

About 32,000 properties were affected last week.Temperatures in Northern Ireland hit a pre-Christmas record of -18ºC and were followed by a dramatic thaw, causing thousands of burst pipes.

Yorkshire Water, which covers 32,000km of pipes, doubled their call centre staff to more than 100 to cope with approximately 8,000 calls in December.

A company spokesman said: “It’s been a really, really busy, challenging last four weeks.

“We are dealing with around 250 bursts across the region and typically we are repairing around 160 leaks a day.”

He added: “North Yorkshire local authorities discovered 80 leaks on schools within their jurisdiction yesterday.

“That’s an incredible amount and gives perspective to the scale of the problem.”

From mid-December Anglian Water, which covers 13 counties, had “just short of 3,000 bursts”, it said, and has managed to fix two-thirds.

Spokesman John Clare said: “Winter started earlier than we expected but we were prepared with extra staff and kit because of previous bad winters.

“There has been a 300% increase in work in recent weeks.”

The number of burst pipes in the Southern Water region has almost doubled. In December 2009 they had 184 reports of bursts. In December 2010, 334 pipes burst along the 13,600km of water mains.

The company said it is conducting “round-the-clock” repairs.

Severn Trent Water forecasted receiving 4,733 calls between Monday 27 December and 30 December. It actually received 11,639.

Thames Water said the freezing weather had quadrupled the amount of bursts and leaks on their 32,000km pipe network under London and the Thames Valley.

Readers' comments (6)

  • Barry Walton

    As with the Northern Ireland article much of the problem is being attributed to the thaw. While that might have an effect on ground movement it does not break pipes directly. It reveals what was broken as ice formed. Stop the ice forming (not easy, nor cheap) and pipes etc will not be broken by internal stresses.

    B Walton

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  • Following on from Barry Walton's comments.

    Generally speaking, and then only with extremely low temperatures, ice forms in pipes with static water and is very much more unlikely to form at the same low temperatures with running water. Process plants use trace heating to cover inevitable periods of static water and other fluids but that could be expensive for domestic and even public and commercial buildings, particularly if retro-fitted.

    Besides the obvious precaution of insulating all pipes in unheated areas such as lofts and garages/sheds, a simply change to the Building Regs, which is cheap and even cheap to retro fit on existing systems, would be to require all CH systems using water circulation to have fitted both a Frost Thermostat and a Pipe Thermostat. Both the Frost Thermostat and the Pipe Thermostat are powered directly from the Mains, bypassing the Control Box en route to the Pump and Boiler. Regardless of any Control Box setting/status, the Frost Thermost typically provides power to the Boiler and the CH Pump when temperatures in that area drop below a pre-set value. Flow then travels around the circuits with water which gradually increases in temperature. The pipe thermostat, fitted just upstream of the Boileron on the return flow, is set with a maximum water temperature at say 20-30 degrees C beyond above which the power is cut off.

    The system generates a periodic short duration slug of warmed water through the whole CH piping system and locally raises temperatures slightly in rooms and around other water pipes following the same routes- significantly decreasing the risk of freezing and pipe bursts. It uses a miniscule amount of extra fuel or power! I've fitted this at home for a system with the Boiler in an unheated external Garage Block and it is very effective. Frost Thermostats are common but depend on the building air temperatures to rise significantly before cutting off power and could be relatively expensive to run, particularly if located in the coldest, possibly unheated area. Pipe thermostats are not common but are simple to retrofit and wire in to the Frost Thermostat circuit.

    It may even prove beneficial, particular if pipes are not laid deep enough and/or on new builds to lay a length of trace heating, linked to this system back along the building's water supply connection with the Water Company's main on all new builds.

    Water Companies might consider all new, modified and extended piping networks should have some re-circulation facility, wherever practical to maintain periodic slugs of flow during very cold periods - thus reducing risks of ice formation and frost damage.

    The real question is, how much of the Water Companies' water pipe frost damage is down to suspect existing old mains which need replacement? Whose paying for the repairs - not the taxpayer again, I hope!

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  • RFP

    I agree wholeheartedly with Barry Walton. The main problem is under-investment in the dilapidated parts of the water networks. All water network pipelines are a minimum of 900mm deep to avoid frost. Water escaping at low pressure(to minimise water loss) from existing leaks, then freezing & expanding around the pipe bore is the principal problem cause.

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  • Whilst I expect that some people do not know that the water companies are not responsible for pipes after the meter or stop cock others do not know a reputable plumber or can not find one who is available and so phone the water company since they don't get ripped off. I have heard stories of plumbers quoting a minimum charge / wanting £500 to £1,000 for the work even before they even set out to see the work.

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  • Whilst I expect that some people do not know that the water companies are not responsible for pipes after the meter or stop cock others do not know a reputable plumber or can not find one who is available and so phone the water company since they don't get ripped off. I have heard stories of plumbers quoting a minimum charge / wanting £500 to £1,000 for the work even before they even set out to see the work.

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  • From the above it would seem beneficial for the Water Companies to report not simply the number of bursts but the bursts within Customers' pipework and bursts within the Water Company's pipes and with the latter split into existing old pipes and pipes installed or replaced since Privatisation! All it would need is a simple instruction from Ofwat. This data would be very useful in determining the extent of each category of problem(s) and the most effective solution(s) needed.

    One further point. if water around the pipes is a source of some of the problems, how much is getting there through unmended potholes and other surfacing openings, or poor quality roadwork and surface drainage repairs? The latter should include the massive amounts of poorly executed trench backfilling and surface re-sealing, and subsequent cracking of re-laid road surfacing by the Statutory Undertakings - Gas, Telephones, Internet, Sewers and Surface Drains, Electricity etc. etc.

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