Saturday, January 16, 2010

Frozen pipes, water shortages and bullshit all around

On Christmas morning, I woke to find my house very cold. When I checked the heating, which runs on pressure from our mains water supply, I found our water was off. While our plan had been to spend Christmas day in Kildare, with family, we spent the vast majority of the day trying to locate the frozen pipes and aiming hairdriers at the most likely pipes.

It had only been -6c the night before.

We ultimately gave up, and went away, hoping that when we arrived back it would be flowing freely again. Sadly, it would be three of the coldest weeks in a generation before we had running water or central heating in our home.

Houseplants died, our cats & I caught colds and we spent three weeks in thermal underwear (not the cats), hats and coats in our own home. We showered with various neighbours, all of whom lost their water ultimately as well. We only flushed the toilets when we had adequate supplies of water to do so. We consumed about 25l of water a day during this time, compared to the Irish daily average of 150l.

What happened? Why did our pipes freeze at a frankly mild -6c? Why did they remain largely frozen for three weeks? Who is at fault?

The first council failure was their emergency number, which rang out for a full four days following Christmas. The council had no way of knowing so many of its residents were without water (and central heating as many of the houses have heating systems that require mains pressure).

It turns out our pipes lay only 14 inches in the ground, where building regulations state they should be 750mm or approximately 29 inches, minimum. This is obviously the fault of the developer. However, there is also supposed to be council oversight in this, and they should not have connected incorrectly laid pipes to the mains. Not only for the householders who would purchase and live in the houses, but because inadequately buried pipes will freeze early, and increase the chance of freezing in the water mains, which can cause breakages and leaks to occur. And Irish pipes are leaking a lot already.

An informal survey of our neighbours and locals from other new-ish estates confirms that everyone who lost water had pipes laid at the wrong depth. The most shallow-laid pipes I found were a mere foot in the ground. Most seem to be fourteen to eighteen inches, still a good 10 inches too shallow.

There were other problems. When the freezing temperatures hit, homeowners who didn't have already frozen pipes, started leaving a tap dripping to avoid losing water. The council then panicked and switched off the water at night, precisely the wrong time to switch it off. Not only was it switched off when people were home from work (yes, people do work during Christmas week) but it was also sitting still in the pipes during the coldest hours of the night. They couldn't have created better conditions for freezing.

So when on December 30th, we got a trickle of water through our taps, the water was switched off that night and it all froze again, and would stay frozen for another two weeks.

Nobody would have to leave their taps dripping if the pipes had been laid correctly in the first place. And while the council denies responsibility, they had to connect those pipes to the water mains. They knew, and their responsibility began with that knowledge.

Now the council have sought to blame the public in press releases and in conversations with the press. They have said that leaving the water dripping is the source of the water shortage.

We learn now that our pipes are old and leaking anything up to about 60% of the treated water that runs through them. In what way is that the fault of the general public? Are we not paying enough in taxes? Have we not made basic infrastructure a political issue in a while?

I'll take the blame for not asking my politicians about our water supplies in a while. And I will start fixing that right now.

I encourage you all to ask your politicians when exactly the developers will be made fix the pipes that they laid too shallow. Ask what the government is doing about aging water infrastructure, rather than spending millions on water metres (in order to charge us for a service that fell at the first hurdle), could they not simply repair the pipes, saving us half the water consumption with simply maintaining our basic and vital infrastructure.


1. Turning the water off at "night" has also forced people to use electrical appliances that require water (washing machine, dishwasher, electric shower) during peak hours, which puts strain on the electric grid and costs the homeowner a lot more. Residents were also forced to use electric heaters to keep their homes livable. We will be seeing some record ESB bills shortly.
2. For those of you saying, "Stop complaining, think about Haiti". Haitians have been living in squalor for hundreds of years. I understand because of the earthquake and horrific mortality predictions it's suddenly in vogue to tell people off for complaining about anything other than being dead. Listen, I gave. I care. I'm not going to give up fighting crappy standards at home just because suddenly everyone cares about Haiti. If you're still freaking out about Haiti next month, I'll be impressed.
3. I am not going to stop annoying the hell out of any official I can get my hands on until I have a concrete committment to fix my pipes so this does not happen if the temperatures happen to drop below 0c again next year. If you want to help, let me know.

1 comment:

click here said...

Good post. It sounds like you guys went through hell.

The situation is really appalling: I wasn't aware that housing developments had pipes laid in breach of minimum requirements until hearing about it in the past couple of days. And just read today about the rates of leakage - what the hell?!

I've been lucky so far (touch-wood), but I'm very concerned that I'll turn around at some point in the next few days, and there'll be nada in the pipes.

None of this should be happening in Ireland (and certainly, the infrastructure should have been completely overhauled in the boom time - story of this country). As a Canuck, the whole thing must seem to you like it would farcical if it wasn't so horrific to have to deal with. Local authorities should be queueing up for your wisdom, taking copious notes.