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The pipes are calling for city's main men

February 19, 2000|By ANDREA ROWLAND

They're the guys in the yellow boots knee-deep in water.

They're men such as Jeff Burnett, Mike Buhrman, Troy Johnson, John W. Kline and Maurice "Butch" Wallech, who are "woken in the middle of the night and sent into terrible conditions but never complain," said Gene Walzl, manager of the Hagerstown Water Department.

They install and repair city water mains by day, and rush to emergency scenes at all hours in all weather to locate the source of pipe breaks, shut off water valves, control traffic and make repairs.

Resident water consumers, businesses, health care facilities and schools depend upon them.

They're under a lot of pressure - up to 120 pounds per square inch in pipes four to 30 inches in diameter.

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When a large main breaks, the pressure "kind of heaves everything up," said distribution foreman Buhrman, 44. "You could lose control pretty easily, I believe."

Crews work in conditions so frigid their tools stick together. They wade through flooded basements and chisel through blacktop to reach buried valves.

"Sometimes it gets pretty nasty and raw out there," said distribution foreman Johnson, who's been with the department for 12 years.

They leave sleeping spouses in warm beds, and miss some holidays with their families.

"It's worse than being married to a cop," said service and repair technician Kline, 45. "There's been lots of times when I haven't even seen my kids open their Christmas presents."

They dodge the traffic trapped around roadside breaks.

"It's usually starting to ice up, and traffic's starting to skid all around you," said Buhrman, whose been on the job 26 years.

"You can get in a real pinch," added Kline, a 28-year veteran.

They wrestle with frozen valves.

"It takes two guys to grunt 'em down pretty good," Buhrman said.

To shut off water, crews circle each valve more than 200 times in a race against time to control water loss, said service and repair technician Wallech, 54.

They must sometimes placate irate, waterless customers.

It's a thankless job.

And they like it.

"It grows on you," said distribution supervisor Burnett, 43, a 25-year veteran.

"It's just like a family around here," said Wallech, who boasts 35 years on the job.

"I learn something every day that I'm working," said Johnson, 35.

"It's a challenge," Kline said. "I'm kinda up for a challenge."

Most emergencies strike during the winter months, when major temperature changes make pipes - some of which are more than a century old - brittle, Walzl said.

It's during the winter cold water from the Potomac River collides with warmer water already in pipes, expanding and cracking or breaking the pipes at their weakest points, Burnett said.

A combination of the two factors is what crews think happened earlier this year, when water mains on Northern and Pennsylvania avenues broke within one hour of each other.

It was about 5 p.m. and freezing when Buhrman first responded to Northern Avenue near the American Legion Home, where the road was "six inches underwater, curb to curb," he said.

City police tried to divert the mounting traffic from the icy site as Buhrman and Johnson searched for the two valves that controlled the water flow. The men found the first valve under 3 feet of plowed snow, and used a metal detector to find the second valve, which had been accidentally covered with asphalt last summer, Buhrman said.

While Buhrman and Johnson worked to shut off the valves and call in repair crews, Walzl and Burnett were scrambling to handle another break on Pennsylvania Avenue near North High.

The crack in that water main was minor, and was easily fixed by the "Band-Aid method," Burnett said.

The Northern Avenue break was worse, requiring the installation of new length of pipe, Buhrman said.

Both breaks were under control within three to four hours, Walzl said.

Most pipes are made of durable iron, but cement pipes were installed in some city areas because of iron rationing during World War II, Buhrman said.

"They tend to blow apart a lot," he said.

The pipes buried along Sharpsburg Pike pose unique problems, Walzl said. They might crack and break more than other area pipes because of a joint material that expands at different rates, he said.

Though uncommon, breaks in the largest water mains prove the toughest to control, the men said.

Wallech said he will always remember the 24-inch main which burst in Williamsport, creating a sinkhole that swallowed a parked car.

"We just killed the water. There was nothing else we could do," he said.

Walzl recalled watching in awe as Johnson rolled up his sleeves and plunged his arm into icy water to find a valve box after a snowplow pummeled a fire hydrant connected to a 24-inch main on Virginia Avenue.

"It was sub-zero. There was all kinds of water flying," Walzl said.

It's not so bad in warm weather.

"You don't mind diving into a hole full of water in the summer," Buhrman said, laughing.

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