Before dawn on a Sunday in August, O’Fallon public works crews were on the job repairing a broken water main at U.S. 50 and Mark Drive, a break that would shut down the entire city’s water service for several hours and cause schools to close.
The break was one of eight so far this year in O’Fallon’s service system, which provides water to more than 16,000 customers in O’Fallon and Fairview Heights and treats an average of 4 million gallons of water per day.
By 1 a.m. the following day, crews had repaired the water main and restored service to customers, but a boil order remained in effect for some parts of the system from Aug. 27 until Aug. 31.
The Public Works Department later determined a hole had corroded on top of a 16-inch iron pipe, causing the break.
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This year’s eight water main breaks topped the city’s average, city engineer Jeff Taylor said, with an annual average of closer to four or five per year. In 2016, there were only two water main breaks and in 2015 there were five.
It’s difficult to determine how much a water main break costs, the city engineer said.
“Every water main break will have a different cost based on a number of factors,” Taylor said, including overtime hours, location and loss of water. If the break is located under a roadway, it will take longer to fix and also incur costs of road repair. Water loss also contributes to the cost, but it’s difficult to estimate exactly how much water is lost during a break.
The repairs, equipment and labor in the August break cost the city roughly $20,000, according to Taylor. A typical water main break would only cost about $1,000 to repair, he added.
Approximately 80 percent of the city’s system is made up of plastic PVC water mains, according to Taylor. The city continues to replace older, smaller iron pipes that are susceptible to corrosion in certain soil types with the larger plastic water mains.
The city is in the process of updating its long-term water infrastructure plan, Taylor said, though no construction is currently underway. One planned for next year will replace approximately 3,000 feet of existing water mains along State Street east of Obernuefemann Road to the city’s existing ground storage tanks. Money is also budgeted in fiscal year 2018 to install a water main extension along Simmons Road and Bethel Road to connect two existing water mains.
“The water system was designed with future development in mind,” Taylor said.
On the city’s western side, where the new St. Elizabeth’s Hospital recently opened, crews installed larger water mains to accommodate new development.
The city does not expect a one-year sewer and water rate freeze to affect funding for the projects, Taylor said. City council approved a one-year sewer and water rate freeze in September, saving the average customer approximately $50 next year. The city would have collected 3.5 percent, or $560,000, more if they had allowed the rates to automatically increase.
While the freeze is in effect, the city will complete “a study of future needs and their impact on future rates and reserves,” Mayor Herb Roach wrote in a September column. Despite the freeze, the city will still maintain a surplus in its funds and enough to cover emergencies.
Since 2009, the city has automatically increased rates based on the Consumer Price Index. Over time, the city built up their reserves from $6 million in 2009 to more than $14 million in September this year.
During this year’s mayoral race, water rates were a point of contention. Mayoral candidate Phil Goodwin advocated for a water rate reduction plan by returning a $3 million surplus to customers. Roach, then a candidate, denounced the proposal as not fiscally responsible for infrastructure needs.