Community Issues That Matter: Elizabethton crew dedicated to repair city water lines

9:09 am | November 26, 2012

Editor’s Note: The average water consumption for all City of Elizabethton residential customers in the City and County is about 4,000 gallons per month. The average net water bill (without sales tax and capital fee) is $25.42. Almost all sewer customers served by the City of Elizabethton live inside the Elizabethton City limits. The average sewer bill is based on 3,900 gallons per month water use. The average net sewer bill is $22.17. There are approximately 11,000 water and 5,000 sewer accounts in the City of Elizabethton.

Photo by Brandon Hicks
Chris Saults, Jed Ward and Mitchell Smith, from left, repair a leaking water line on Watauga Road while Todd Stines operates the track hoe. Smith is pictured holding a water valve to be installed during the leak repair.


The City of Elizabethton, faced with an aging infrastructure that dates back more than 100 years, has deployed a four-man crew with sole responsibility to repair and replace leaking water lines along 131 miles of city streets, according to Public Utilities Director Johann Coetzee.

City officials estimate it will take 10 to 15 years, with the necessary funding, to repair and replace the decaying water and sewer infrastructure in the city.

In July 2012, the water and sewer departments were combined into a single division to improve efficiency. A month later, the four-man crew began a $1.5 million project to replace water meters and repair leaking water lines, with the intent to reduce water loss and improve cash flow.

“The City of Elizabethton currently does not meet state compliance standards on water loss,” Coetzee said.

The four-man crew, Todd Stines, crew leader, Mitchell Smith, Jed Ward and Chris Saults, have combined experience of more than 38 years; their supervisor, Jim Roberts, manager of water/wastewater construction, has 30 years experience.

“Our goal is to install about 1,000 feet of new water lines per month, but we produce less than that on average. Our productivity for the last three months is about 2,600 feet,” Coetzee said.

The current work schedule includes rebuilding customer service lines from Old Siam Road to Seanna Street, Bluefield Avenue from Cody Street to Conley Street, East H Street from Holston Avenue to Cedar Street, Roe Hodge Road off the old Bristol Highway, and replacing 12-inch pipe under the Gilbert Peters Bridge to allow the water line to flex without leaking.

A number of factors have kept the crew from reaching the 1,000-foot goal, among them the number of driveways, natural gas lines, storm drains, sewer lines, and rock outcroppings near the water line, vehicle traffic, required flagging, work zone safety precautions, and the availability of space in the road or easement. A narrow road with no place to put excavated dirt and/or building materials and bring in dump trucks will slow the process, Coetzee said.

“Repair of water leaks is prioritized, according to the size of the leak. We try to get to the larger leaks first to minimize the overall water loss to the system. Other factors will determine priority, such as if the leak is causing damage to private or public property. In winter we worry about ice in the roadway and on sidewalks.

“Unless the leak qualifies as an emergency as defined by the Tennessee OneCall system, we have to wait three days before we can dig to repair after we file a OneCall. This gives all other utilities three days to mark their underground services. We do not want to cut gas lines, communications, electricity and sewer lines by mistake,” Coetzee said.

The City of Elizabethton typically has about 50 reports of water leaks at any given time on record with the repair process under way.

“This is better understood if you consider that we have over 300 miles of water mains in the system. On top of that, there are many miles of customer lateral in public rights-of-way that we are also responsible for. We may not and do not repair private water systems on private land. We have three repair crews, each dedicated to a sector of our service area,” Coetzee said.

Coetzee said the process involves:

• Preparing drawings of the proposed project and filed with the State for approval;

• Submitting a Tennessee OneCall notice to prepare for identifying and protecting other utility services;

• Communicating with property owners and filing news media notices if the water is expected to be periodically cut off to customers;

• Excavating and replacing the line; and,

• Reconnecting customers and replacing old water meters, if required, with new materials. This is a slow process, especially for the customers on the opposite side of the road, according to Coetzee.

The new line must be pressure-tested for two hours and meet American Water Works Association standards.

Next, the line is filled with heavily chlorinated water for disinfection and left for several days, according to state regulations. Then the line is flushed and filled with City water.

Water samples are taken at prescribed intervals and analyzed in the water department laboratory for bacterial pollution. Customers are connected only once the test is passed. The crew then has to repair all road cuts, sidewalks, driveways, yards and landscaping that were affected by the construction activities, Coetzee said.

To report water leaks, sewer line problems and street repairs in the City of Elizabethton, call 547-6300 (24 hours a day, 7 days a week).

“We call customers back if their property, water supply or access to their property will be affected by the repair,” Coetzee said. “We also call customers back upon request. For the more generic leaks in public rights-of-way and easements, we generally do not call customers back.”

The City of Elizabethton is looking for more ways to expedite customer water leak reports and to monitor progress.

“We presently have one full-time administrative employee allocated to the entire notification, administration and record-keeping process related to water leaks,” Coetzee said.

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