Marketplace's Scott Tong did a piece yesterday for NPR about the big, scary, expensive problem of replacing everyone's sewer lines across the nation, and Baltimore was exhibit A.
"Baltimore has embarked on a $1.5 billion program to replace and rebuild," Tong said. "Jackhammers throughout the city dig up streets and replace pipes, the oldest of which are made of wood and terra cotta."
It's a good piece, taking the long view. But in that one sentence, Tong makes two mistakes:
- The amount of money Baltimore is spending on its pipes is about $4.5 billion. It is not $1.5 billion. The sewer side alone is $2.4 billion. We know this figure because the city raised its borrowing cap last summer in anticipation of the spending. The bonds will be paid back mainly through your water and sewer charge.
There are no wood pipes in Baltimore City's system. There have not been any since approximately the Johnson administration—Andrew, that is, not Lyndon. Says DPW spokesman Kurt Kocher: "There were probably private wooden sewer pipes that ran into the Jones Falls 150 years ago, but the system constructed by the city never had them."
The "wood pipe" myth is a handy short cut for perfidy and mismanagement, and lately it's been linked, by some, to the tendency of the city's new "smart" water meters to split in the cold. City Paper has been asked how the DPW could spend $90 million on the new meters only to see them fail in single-digit temperatures. The Brew has covered some of this ground, but it bears repeating.
Water meters are designed to fail, says Jeff Raymond, another DPW spokesman. "Bear in mind that cities across the country are dealing with this issue. This stretch of very cold weather has played havoc with all kinds of meters and pipes everywhere. Finally, remember that all water meters (all, as in even the ones we are replacing) are designed to fail at a certain point. The bottom plate will split if the water inside freezes and expands enough. That's because it's much easier and cheaper to replace a broken meter than a service pipe."
He says the part that splits is metal, not the plastic cover that people see. No water meter in the city runs water through plastic parts, Raymond says.
Anyone who knows anything about building codes knows you have to bury water pipes below the frost line—nearly three feet down here in Baltimore. But it also turns out that meters are the exception. Putting each one in a huge pit that a man could fit in to service it would be too expensive, Raymond says. And so in Baltimore and everywhere else the meters are near grade-level, the water pipes are brought up to go through them.
And so when the temperature is expected to remain below 25 F for "extended periods," DPW advises customers to leave one faucet running with a thin stream "about the thickness of a pencil lead."