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New Water Main Odyssey

July 7, 2011
by

Water is our enemy. We have written several previous posts where we have cursed our leaky roofs and complained about the hours and hours we have spent trying to keep BAB dry.

But water also a necessity. That is, you need a clean & purified water supply for normal life, at least for a typical standard of living in this country.

And our water supply has had a leak for quite a long time. We first noticed some drips below our water meter last fall, and Sue wrote this post about the puddle growing in size in the basement.

What we have avoided writing about since then is the ever-increasing amount of water leaking through our foundation wall as we worked our way through the bureaucracy of City Hall attempting to switch our commercial property status to residential.  I’ll skip the minutia of those endless phone calls – in the end, since we first reported the water main leak when BAB was considered commercial, the “insurance program” would only cover residential properties and our leak would not be grandfathered in.  Quite the bummer to us; all the while we have squeegeed and pumped water out of our basement reflecting pool. So it was now our responsibility to fix the lake.

Ducks finally fell into a row this past week, and our plumber arranged to install a new water line on Friday. I arranged my schedule so that I could work from home; I “attended” some meetings via the internet and made some conference calls. Our past history of contractors at BAB told us that someone should be here.

On Thursday, utility services came over and marked the sidewalk with paint – it looked alien markings (that is, if you believe in alien markings).

Almost looks like Space Invaders...

The plumbers showed up at 7:30am and got right to work. I photographed them laying out their excavations; I told them I would be working back in our apartment – wouldn’t hear them if they knocked and gave them my cell number; but I also said I’m come out every hour or so and see how things were going.

They started by whacking off the bolt for the water shut-off cover – I guess only the water department has the proper wrench for that pentagon-shaped bolt. No worries though, they were replacing that entire setup.

Getting access to the water shutoff.

Then the team marked out the area over the water main, and sawcut through the road before jack-hammering away the asphalt and underlying (vintage) brick.

Sawcut of the hole over the main

The cloud of dust from the sawcut got pretty thick, then the wind changed and started coming into the second story window where I was photographing them – I ducked back inside and closed the window and went back to work.

Cloud of dust arising from the street

The next time I checked in, they had the water main exposed as well as our existing water supply connection. They had attempted to shut off the built-in valve at the connection, but they said that they had to be careful around it our it could blow out and create an enormous water leak. He started turning it and it sprung a little leak, seen in the next photo:

Our existing water supply with a little leak at the main.

Just to note – this little leak was not the cause of our leak through the wall; our leak was at the shutoff below the sidewalk. THIS was a NEW leak.

They decided to leave this main issue alone and turned around to focus on tearing up the sidewalk and getting the shutoff valve out. The city water department was on their way and they could consult on the water main together.

Bobcat Jack-hammer on the sidewalk

As another example of having the right tool for the job, they had the sidewalk broken up in less than 5 minutes.

Smashed to pieces in 5 minutes.

Once the city water department guys showed up, our plumbers explained the situation. There was much debate about who was responsible for what, and our plumber knew that he shouldn’t touch anything that was the responsibility of the city. So our plumber jumps into the hole. The city water guys watch.

Our plumber jumps in while city guys observe.

It was difficult to see, but there was a small trickle coming out of the bronze connector piece. (I thought I heard them called it a “core” or some kind of shorthand like that.)

In the next photo, you can see the “ripple” across the pool of water caused by the leak as it entered the pool.

A new leak in the big pit.

The city guys left – they agreed what needed to be done and what they’d do and would be back in an hour. So our plumber guys jumped in and needed to hand-excavate around the cores so they would minimize any contact.

Interestingly, one guy from our plumbers company was obviously more experienced than the other and was telling the other to “Stay away!” from that core and not touch it. (He had told me earlier that if it were bumped it could blow out and blast a geyser up to the second floor of our building.) He was unsatisfied with the other guy’s work so eventually said “Get out of the hole, I’ll finish it…”

So they traded places and more-experienced-guy was digging, and I didn’t see exactly what happened but within a split-second,  he jumped out of the hole like a leaping monkey and suddenly there was a huge geyser spraying out of the ground.

The Big Ass Leak

He must have hit the core or dropped a clod of dirt onto it, but he did exactly what they were trying to avoid. So he spent the next ten minutes walking around in drenched clothes cursing and mustering to himself.

I couldn’t help but record a few videos right then and there:

(Click on the thumbnails to open a new window or tab of the video.)

About an hour later, when I needed a break, I saw that the city guys were back but they had another crew with them – these were the “Leak Fixers”. What I watched unfold over the next 10-15 minutes was quite hilarious.

First, they all have to stand around and assess the situation – A) confirm that it’s a leak, B) decide if it’s their responsibility to fix it and finally C) determine how they’d fix it. They also had to pull a second water pump out in order to keep the water level in the hole low enough to work in.

Group meeting to observe the leak.

I heard an urban legend that the city uses wooden spikes, like the kind you use to kill vampires, to plug up holes in the main. I didn’t believe it. But…

Take a look at the guy second from the left – yep – a wooden spike in his hand!

A wooden spike can fix anything!

Sure enough, he explains to the lucky volunteer how to place it into the pressurized stream to stop the leak. Spike Man (in the middle) says okay and heads into the hole.

"Here's how you stop the leak with this hunk-o-wood..."

Spike Man gets halfway down the ladder and is immediately soaked to the bones from the pit of water and the gurgling geyser.

Goin' down in the water hole...

He bent down, disappeared from view, and started yelling something… I couldn’t understand exactly what. But everyone standing around the hole was cheering him on: “Yeah buddy! You can do it!”

Alas, he came back up the ladder with the geyser spraying more than before he went down.

C'mon back up - failed attempt #1.

He went back down for another try – with lots of yelling from everyone. I imagine it’s pretty hard to try and shove that over-sized toothpick into a stream of water that is probably hundreds of pounds of pressure.

Going in for another try...

He popped back up a minute or so later – still didn’t spike it in.

But hey – at least now they’re makin’ rainbows!

Makin' rainbows, tryin' to fix a leak.

He came close to stopping it…

LOOKS like it's stopped...

But it didn’t stick and the geyser returned. And so did the rainbow.

Rainbow is back. So is the leak. Fail #2.

Spike Man comes up and gets some more guidance and advice from another dude. Notice that the OTHER DUDE is not going down in the hole. But of course he knows how to fix it.

Spike Man gets advice on how to spike.

After his third attempt, he decided to call it quits and brings a spike back out with him

Third Fail.

Since there are so many city water guys around, odds were good that there would be another volunteer to go into the hole and try to spike the hole and stop the leak. And, chances were even better since there appeared to be so many knowledegable folk giving advice to the first Spike Man.

Yes. There was. And he was ready with TWO wooden spikes in his hand:

Spike Man #2 with 2 spikes.

Spike Man Number Two wastes no time and gets right to work. When he started, the crew standing started cheering him on with shouts of “Tame that bitch!” and “Slap that Mother-F—–!”and “Kill that piece of Sh–!!”

Maybe it was the water soaking his lower half? Maybe he hated the spray. Perhaps the expletives gave him strength. But he had the spike in pretty quickly.

Spike Man #2 gets right on top of it.

Oh, I forgot to mention – once the spike is in the hole (you’re holding it with your left hand), you have to grab a hammer with your right and and pound, pound, pound the spike in tightly.

Fortunately, there’s another guy at the top waiting to hand Spike Man #2 his hammer…

"A little help!..." Here's the hammer...

Looks like Spike Man #2 got the job done! He first tosses his hammer out of the hole before asking for the ladder so he can climb out.

Yay! Spike Man #2 stopped the leak!

It was cause for celebration and lots of whooping. City workers celebrating with local plumbers. Stars were in alignment.

They were all so happy that a high five and a chest bump were seen between Spike Man #1 and Spike Man #2.

Hip hip hooray! High Five! Leak is stopped!

Once they all settled down, glad-handed each other for a job well done, it was time to put a more permanent fix on the leak.

They carried a large rubber and stainless steel clamp/banding device that would go over the hole with the spike. (The spike needed to be sawed off flush with the water main first.)

The "permanent" fix that goes over the wood spike.

I noticed that there were a lot of trucks and people around. While our plumber’s original intention was that a single lane would be available around the work zone, at one point there were five trucks filling our corner and the street was impassable.

So many official vehicles blocking the street!

On my next visit down to the street… they had the clamp installed, and were prepped & ready for the city “new tap” crew, who were now going to create a new hole on purpose in the water main.

Leak clamped and main cleaned.

They strapped an all-in-one machine to the pipe that they told me would drill a hole into the main, then tap threads into that hole, then screw a new “core” (water line connection) into the threads. ALL while the main line was still up & running – no one was going to lose water service. (Well, except ours was out.)

All-in-one machine drilling a hole in the main.

The next photo is a closeup of our new core; there is white compound on the threads where it will screw into the main. (The thing on the left with Stanley on it is just a fan to keep the dude in the hole cool.)

Our new connection; there is a small valve that can turn off the water.

It only took him about five minutes from start to finish – he had to slide some rods around, then switch the drilling/threading component with the new connection piece, and before you know it he had removed the chains and was taking it all apart.

Done and taking the machine off.

(Sorry about the dark photos – his shadow was cast right where I wanted to photograph and didn’t want to ask him to move…)

Like magic - the new connection is revealed after the machine is removed.

Hey – looks like there’s a piece of a wood spike floating around!

All ready for a new copper line to our building.

Another hour passes before I visit them, and I find one of our plumbers up to his knees in muck. That hole in the sidewalk had filled with water from the geyser, and they had to hand excavate it because there were fiber optic lines running under our sidewalk, and could be cut easily with the backhoe.

Quite a dirty job...

They are attempting to dig down to the old copper line for two reasons – one, to be able to pull the old line out and re-use the hole in the building foundation, two, that’s the depth that they want to put the new line.

It keeps getting messier...

They made it to the new line, and after a failed attempt of tying a chain around it to pull it out, they used their smarts and wedged the teeth of the bucket onto a thicker part of the line and lifted it out with hydraulics.

Bucket teeth used to pull out old water line.

The next step took a bit of skill and experience. They needed to create a new hole underground between this pit in the sidewalk and the big hole at the water main. They use a tool they called a “mole” that looked like an elongated giant silver bullet. It’s leaning against the mud in the next photo, it has a hose coming out of the end.

The Mole is ready for action.

The procedure seems simple enough – basically stick it in the dirt and then turn it on. But having a good aim is crucial…

The Mole has very few moving parts. At least on the outside.

There is some wiggle room in its aiming – it moves about an inch every ten seconds, so he has time to readjust its trajectory — I guess feet are best for that.

Could almost be like surfing. Not really.

He kept standing on the mole until he was satisfied that it was on target.

That vibration could hurt your feet after a while.

The mole works a lot like a jackhammer – still pneumatic powered but sideways instead of down. In the next photo, as the mole is now out of sight – you can see the air blasting out of its rear.

The pneumatic mole is now out of sight.

I went back inside for a while so I didn’t get to see them running new copper and making all of the final connections. When I came back they had the new copper line connected to the main; I wish I’d seen how they get the copper line to follow the mole hole.

Our new water supply line.

They said they were all done and water should be running, so I went back inside to confirm. No water in the apartment. I went back to report that – I asked if they’d forgotten to open the valve in the basement – the plumber confirmed, and once I went down to open that valve, we had water again!

Now it was time for them to clean up the street.

Stripped down and sweepin'!

The neighbor’s car got a little messy – we knocked on their door in the morning to ask them to move it, but no one answered. Plumber tried hosing it down. I planned to leave a note on the car offering to pay for a car wash.

Car got a little dirty...

The multi-tool Bobcat is now used to push gravel into the hole.

Gravel gets shoved into the hole.

Interestingly enough, they pushed ALL of the gravel into the big hole in the street. I thought this was a bad idea until I watched them for a couple more minutes. Once the gravel was piled over the big hole, they relocated the Bobcat by the sidewalk and then scooped a bucket of gravel out of the big hole and then dumped it into the hole at the sidewalk. That’s when I realized that they were using the DEPTH of the big hole (full of gravel) to dip the bucket into. If they’d left the gravel on the street, it would have been harder to get a full bucket of gravel.

After they filled the sidewalk hole, they brought the metal plate back over for its actual intended purpose – as a temporary cover over the hole so that cars can drive over.

Big steel plate covers the hole for a couple of days.

I think the crew was ready to get out of there – it was already close to 5:00 and they were hoping to be done hours ago so that they could all get a head start on their Fourth of July weekend. I was happy that they stuck with it, as we did not want to start OUR Fourth of July weekend without water.

They were gone within seconds of the goodbye handshake-and-thank-you, and suddenly the street was quiet.  It was quite a contrast to the day long extravaganza of excitement, water geysers, mud pits and boisterous m-f’ expletives that I observed from the second floor window.

Best of all – our leak in the basement is now gone.

All is quiet and not a soul around.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Chris Ruck permalink
    July 13, 2011 5:26 pm

    Dang. That’s alot of mess.

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