The Possible Perils of Uptown Columbus’ Pipeline Work

With ThesCon just passed and two major conventions coming up, which are bringing newcomers to Columbus, what challenges does the city face regarding Uptown’s utility repairs?

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The Possible Perils of Uptown Columbus’ Pipeline Work

A water tower in Uptown Columbus. This one is practically a symbol of the city.

A water tower in Uptown Columbus. This one is practically a symbol of the city.

Photo by Jessica DeMarco-Jacobson

A water tower in Uptown Columbus. This one is practically a symbol of the city.

Photo by Jessica DeMarco-Jacobson

Photo by Jessica DeMarco-Jacobson

A water tower in Uptown Columbus. This one is practically a symbol of the city.

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There has been pipework being done in Uptown Columbus for quite awhile now; one can hardly remember when it started, and some are clueless as to when it will end.

“Some” includes RiverPark students. About a week ago, they received an email from Rodger Page, Residence Life Coordinator at the RiverPark Campus, concerning the water service maintenance being conducted on Broadway. The email stated,


“For the remainder of February, there may be intermittent interruptions in water service due to the City of Columbus working on the water system.”


The email did not provide an end date. It continued,


“These interruptions in water service may be during the hours of 8 AM and 5 PM and should not last for more than an hour at a time.”


A few RiverPark students have since reported to The Saber that they’ve experienced discolored water — usually a yellow or whitish color — from their bathtubs or sinks. The students were confused as to whether or not the discolored water was safe to use, wondering what caused its discoloration.

While trying to determine the cause of the discolored water, I found an answer through a mistake — I accidentally called the Division of Water in Columbus, Ohio, not Columbus, Georgia — and had the opportunity of speaking with Paul, a water research analyst from the Water Quality Assurance lab there. Here’s just a snippet of the conversation we had:


Paul: So that yellow coloration is a form of rusty water. It tends to happen when they’re doing work in … Not like your immediate area, but somewhere recently close to you. So that yellow coloration is essentially a dissolved form of iron, and it travels much further than, say, like the reddish brown actual particulates of rust that gets stirred up sometimes. So that’s generally what causes that yellow coloration, especially if you’re just seeing it as a temporary issue. So, like if it came and went, someone was probably doing work at the time, stirred up some rust in the pipe, and then that dissolved iron traveled through the main lines and showed up at the time that someone was using it.


Jessica D.-J.: Oh, okay. So I’m assuming, is this water safe to use in any way?


Paul: Yeah, as far as health and safety goes, there’s not a whole lot to be concerned with because of that coloration. Like I said, it’s just dissolved iron. I suppose there are some people that have rare kidney conditions where the iron can be a problem to them, but like I said, unless that’s a known condition, it’s not something that we generally worry about health and safety wise. As long as they always had good water pressure … Like you turn the tap on, the water still comes out, generally everything is okay there. Our cautions are generally more along the lines of try not to do any laundry until that yellow coloration passes just because it can stain some of your lighter colored clothes.


The Columbus Water Works website offers some explanations and solutions to discolored, cloudy, or odorous water, verifying some of what Paul stated:


“Cloudy or discolored water can be caused by a variety of things. Sediment in distribution lines sometimes gets stirred up if a water line is disturbed because of a break or through firefighting. Let the water run for at least a minute to see if it clears up. This will flush out any sediment if that’s the problem. If the problem is corrision [sic] from your private plumbing system in your home or business, running the water for a few minutes should also clear it up. However, if you didn’t catch it in time and have stained laundry as a result, CWW can provide a decolorizing agent to remove the stains.

If none of this solves the problem, it could be your pipes (many older homes have galvanized iron pipes that cause discoloration). While CWW is only responsible for the pipes up to the water meter, we’ll be happy to test your water if you have concerns and possibly make recommendations on how to solve the problem.”


So, the water is safe to use; just be careful when doing laundry. However safe the water is, the pipeline work still presents perils to those visiting or living in Uptown Columbus.


When visiting the POD on Broadway, a number of students claimed they’d not experienced any problems concerning the pipework, meaning that they had yet to see any sort of disruption in their water services, or had failed to see their water run discolored yet. The POD supervisor’s answers were in line with the students’; she had not yet had any issues regarding the water service or pipeline work.

ThesCon attendee Candice Oghn from Peachtree Ridge High School (just outside Atlanta) commented on the pipework: “I tripped and fell yesterday. We were walking from IEs [individual events], and there was just open pipework everywhere… Especially since it was dark, I could barely see anything, so I felt like it was just a little bit dangerous, especially since there’s just a bunch of teenagers this weekend.”

I was led to the Columbus Water Works after calling 311, the citizen service line. A CWW employee told me that I would receive a call back later in the day — I didn’t. I called them again on Monday and was directed to a member of the Cleaning and Lining Program, who informed me that she’d be unable to make any comments that’d be published. She gave my contact information to Vic Burchfield, who I held an interview with on Wednesday:


How the Cleaning and Lining Project Works:


Jessica D.-J.: Would you be able to tell me a little bit about the Cleaning and Lining Program?

Vic: We have a downtown contractor that we have hired, actually, to do the cleaning and lining process. They are a specialist in that field, in the technology that they use. The interesting thing about the cleaning and lining that we’re doing is that I’m always having to dig up the pipe. Typically, in the old days, you would have to go down and trench, and actually dig up all the pipe, if you wanted to do any maintenance on it, or service it, or if you wanted to replace the pipe, you would have to go in and dig it up.

With the technology that we’re using downtown, we actually can just take the water main out of service. We take the water main out of service and we put temporary water mains on top of the ground. Those temporary water mains are smaller, but they lie on top of the ground in the curbing area. It sets up a bypass, if you will, that we can then reconnect the businesses in that area to that new temporary water main that’s lying on top of the ground.

That’s how you take the water main out of service, and then, on that section, they do the work in sections. Whenever they take that water main section out of service, they simply dig up on each end of that water main and dig a hole, basically. They expose the water main on each end. Then they pull what’s called a pig device — it’s a sky-ring scrubber-type device that they just pull through with a cable, through that interior of that pipe and that just scrapes out the insides of that pipe.

It scrapes out all the rust and corrosion that has built up over the years. It scrapes it out to bare metal. Once you pull that pig through, you have a totally cleaned pipe down to the bare metal.    Then, what you have to do is clean that out, get all the debris out, and then you go in behind it and they have a technology where you pull a sprayer through that sprays a thin layer of… it’s like a cement mixture.

Basically, it sprays the inside of that cleaned pipe with a very thin layer of cement. What that does is it puts a barrier between that metal and the water that’s going to be in the pipe. That prevents that pipe from rusting and building up corrosion in the future, because with water, you have to make sure that you have a treatment or that the water’s balanced so that you don’t have rusting to occur in the pipe or corrosion to occur.

We chemically treat the water at the plant so that it’s properly balanced, but in the pipe, you can also put a cement liner in there to help prevent that pipe from corroding in the future. It greatly extends the life of that pipe, the pipe in that area, in some cases, is 100 years old. Now, by doing this, we will extend the pipe for another 50 years or so in that area. That’s the technology that we’re using, if that helps.

Jessica D.-J.: The name of the program is the Cleaning and Lining Program?

Vic: Cleaning and Lining Project.


What’s a water main?


Jessica D.-J.: Could you explain what you mean by a water main? Do you mean just a main pipeline, or?

Vic: That’s right. In the streets, you have water mains that are — They may be anywhere from four inches on up to, on large transmission mains, maybe 54 inches in diameter. A four-inch main is fairly small, but typically, in that downtown area, you would have a six-inch main in that area. That six-inch water main is six inches in diameter. It runs underground, and it transports treated water that has been treated at our water-treatment plant located on River Road.

Our water treatment plant is up near Oliver Dam. That’s the source of the drinking water in Columbus. All the drinking water comes from Lake Oliver and goes through our treatment plant that’s located on River Road up there on the hill. You can see it as you drive by on JR Allen Parkway, and you might often have seen the two tanks sitting up on the hill as you drive around that bypass. It’s got our logo on it. Up there is where the water plant is.

All the water from Columbus that everybody uses in Columbus comes from Lake Oliver and from that water treatment plant that’s on River Road. We treat the water, disinfect the water, and from there make sure that there’s no bacteria at all in the water, because we can’t have any bacteria in the water, it has to be zero. Then we pump it out through all the water mains throughout all of Columbus.

Every street, every block, every community has water mains underground that are all… it’s a network of water mains, big and small. You can just think of it as an artery system of the human body that carries your blood throughout all your body. The water mains are the infrastructure that carry all the water from the water treatment plant and delivers it to all the homes and businesses throughout Columbus.

In the case of downtown, that water main is sitting there in the road — it may be anywhere from six to eight feet deep underneath, and then from that water main the business or home is connected to that water main with a service line. That service line is simply tapped in and then that goes to the home or to the business. We have a meter box there where we put a meter so that we can measure the water that everybody uses. That’s what we build off of.

We go out, measure that meter, read it, and we know exactly how much water you use, and that’s how your bill is calculated. That’s pretty much what a water main is, and that’s where they get the water from. That’s true everywhere in Columbus.


When did the project begin and where is it taking place?


Jessica D.-J.: When exactly did this project begin?

Vic: It started January the seventh of this year, and it’s going to be going through July of this year. It’s a long-term project. Like I said in that area downtown, and I’ve got a map that I put in for you. It’s not everywhere downtown. It’s just all these yellow areas.

If you ride down there, you’ll see the temporary water mains. Then I’m talking about they’ll be lying on top of the ground in these areas, and they’ll be running the curb, and you’ll see that the businesses and all in that area will be tapped in to the background water mains, and there’ll be a meter there. They’ll be tapped in.


Image by Columbus Water Works
The highlighted areas show which parts of Uptown are included within the program’s intended work area.


You’ll see work out there if you just go look or walk down the sidewalk; you’ll know what’s going on. You’ll see the meter box. Now, the meter box will be a temporary pipe coming out, is going to be going over to that temporary water main that’s lying above the ground. That’s where they’re getting their water while that main is on the ground has been worked on.


Why can water become discolored and what are its effects on health?


Jessica D.-J.: Would you be able to answer why the water is discolored or its health effects?

Vic: Yes. Well, there may be temporary discoloration. Just when they switch over to the new water, the temporary water main that’s above ground because you do have to disconnect your service from the water main that’s underground and hook it up to the new one that’s above ground, or the temporary one that’s above ground. Whenever you start or turn off water and you turn it back on, that causes some discoloration to occur, from time to time just because you’re stopping the pressure on that water main.

Any time you turn off water like that, the rust that’s inside the pipe, or that corrosion that I was telling you about, it can break loose, or it might be sediment in the piping. It’s mainly corrosion, is mainly iron that’s coming from the rust from the pipe, and that’s what, whenever you start and stop that water, it’ll cause a hammering effect, and it will cause that rust to break loose that might be on the inside of that pipe.

That discoloration is usually temporary. It’s that rust that you’re seeing coming out typically. It’s usually temporary. What we advise customers to do when they see that is to… If on a situation like that, that should be all that’s causing it in that area is when they’re transferring over, because they’re stopping and turning off the water and turning it back on. They might see a little discoloration, but they can flush the water in their homes or in the business for about five or 10 minutes, and usually, that will flush it out.

You’ll be getting new water in from that temporary main, and it usually clears up just by flushing for five or 10 minutes. Now, if they’re seeing white water, what that usually is is air in the main that also can occur. When you’re stopping and turning off, turning off water, air gets entrapped, bubbles of air get trapped in that main, and since the water is under such great pressure, that water just hits that air pocket and just will churn and it will put billions of little tiny air bubbles that you can’t even see hardly into that water.

Just mix it up, and then it comes through to your surface, and it looks like milk. What you can tell, is just getting — if you’ve got white water like that, you just draw your glass of water and set it on the table and just watch it for a few minutes, and you’ll see that the white will just rise to the top, and it’s just air that’s coming to the top, and it’ll all disappear because it’s just air.

In both cases, you can flush the water five to 10 minutes, and typically, that will get rid of that. We advise on discolored water to always wait until the water is clear. We don’t like telling people to drink water that’s discolored because we’re not there and we can’t see how discolored it is, typically if it’s a little discolored, it’s fine. It’s just iron out of the water main, but we would typically like to tell people to just wait till the water clears, and that’s your indicator that the water’s fine, once it clears back up.

Jessica D.-J.: The River Park students were given an email from the housing supervisor saying that there might be intermittent issues with their water service until February. If the program is going until July, then do you think they will possibly face issues until July instead of February?

Vic: Well, like I said, the contractor that’s working on the job down there, they’re doing it in sections, so it’s possible that that section will be finished earlier. Because that’s for the whole project, it’s from January seventh through July. In the CSU area, these may be completed before the remainder is completed. So whatever the contractor has said, if they were told February, then that’s probably the best estimate of when the work would be done for that particular area because they would do that work and then move on so that I would have to. The letter that they provide is probably this one. This is a simple letter and you can have that.

That’s the letter that we send out to the contractor. He will serve that letter to the customers down there whenever their worse is going to be switched over.

The letter that CWW customers received regarding the Water Main Cleaning and Lining Program



How will the city address newcomers?


Jessica D.-J.: How will you address all the newcomers coming in from conferences? I spoke to some ThesCon students, and not being from here, they ran into some issues, literally and metaphorically.

Vic: We’ve got barricades and signs in the area, and just like with any construction, we try to put up the necessary signs. Just making sure that they will line marks so that people can see it. People will have to be careful as they’re walking around those areas. We’ve got the signage and the barricades up. That’s all of the code in that area properly marking the roads, for example, for any lanes changes and all of that’s marked so that they know to slow down for example, if you’re driving.

If you’re walking, again, we have the orange barricades set up in those areas just as in a typical construction zone, but in any construction zone, we just have to remind the public to be careful in that area. The current moment this is the notification that we’re sending out as we’re doing the work. Your major facilities down there that the visitors might be visiting have been notified of this. We would encourage anyone that’s visiting the area. I think that if they just keep a close eye on all the above ground. Flax barricades over there, columns and so forth that they would be just fine.

We try to get out the word as best we can. For conference is a little more difficult to do because you don’t know who stay in at the hotels and so forth. The best way to do that is with proper barricades and signage, blank closings and that sort of thing that are protecting the public that’s in that area so that they can see as they come up on the construction zone that they know that it’s there. They can either revolt it or be very careful as they’re either walking through perimeter driving in that area. I think you asked about the plates.


Do the metal plates on the street pose a problem to drivers?


Jessica D.-J.: Yes, the metal plates. I was wondering if those pose any issue to drivers at all, because I heard some complaints about that too.


Vic: Not if they’re going the speed limit. They’re just fine for a car, this being properly driven through the area, it will cause absolutely no damage at all. It will be a little clicking sound as you go over the plate, but the plate is about an inch high, and your tire just runs over the top of it. You will feel a little bump, so to speak, but it’s far less of an impact like a speed bump that you would go over. A speed bump, you would have to slow down even more, so any car going the speed limit would absolutely not have any mechanical issues by going over the plates.


Are there any challenges or issues that the program is facing?


Jessica D.-J.: One of the other questions I had was, are you guys facing any issues or challenges in your program?

 Vic: No, everything is going as scheduled on that particular project. I have not heard of any issues with the project except now. Something that happened today, actually, is at the Springer. The Springer had some water in the basement this morning. That’s right in the middle of where we’re doing the cleaning and lining project.

They found out this morning at ten o’clock that the power was off at Springer, and they went down to investigate it, and the basement had water in it, so they notified us. We’ve got our contractors, immediately responded because they have a temporary water-main right in front of the Springer there. Our contractor is assisting right now in pumping out that water out of the basement.

The Water Works is going down, too. Right now, we’re mobilizing to assist them in pumping out that water. Currently, they’re doing the assessment of what happened or how did the water get into the basement? Is it coming from the… Does it have anything to do with the cleaning and lining? At this point, we don’t know, but we’re doing the assessment. So once the water is pumped out, then they can see where the water’s coming from.

They’ll see if it was a private property issue or if there was a pipe that broke inside the Springer or whether it’s somehow got in from the outside, from one of our water mains or from the cleaning and lining project. At this point, we don’t know, but it is right there at the cleaning and lining. So if you ask me if there’s any issues, that’s the issue that came up today that may be involved with it.


What the pipeline work poses to the public:


Jessica D.-J.: Well, yes, that was a question that was forming in my head — that it could pose danger to some of the historic buildings along these yellows lines. I guess that’s something you’ll have to wait and see to find out what’s the cause of that particular problem.


Vic: Well, typically, like I said, it’s a very non-invasive type of  technique in that we don’t have to dig up the street. You can imagine if we had to take a backhoe and dig up the street on top of all of these areas down there in that historic area. That would really cause a disruption. By using this technique, you do have the distraction of the water mains being on top of the ground and they’re caught in the way, like I said, walking around.

The only thing that affects the building itself, it’s just that temporary connection and disconnection while they are hooking up the new surface. The water pressure is the same, so it doesn’t harm the piping in any way. There’s no other way that it would harm the historic buildings in that area just by typically doing cleaning and lining like this. It’s a very safe, and I guess, environmentally friendly way to do it.

Or I guess you’d say a very public friendly, and street friendly way to do a project like this, and that’s why this technology is so good to be able to go in like that. Just go right down the water-main and totally clean it out and reline it. That’s why it’s called a cleaning and lining because it’s a — you’re doing both. This technology has been used for, I guess about 30 years, I guess, but it’s a vast improvement over the way it used to be done.


Former methods of pipeline work vs. newer methods:


Jessica D.-J.: I’m assuming the older way would just be digging it up, right?

Vic: You dig it up, and pretty much, you’d have to replace it. You couldn’t — the pipe would be all rusted and corroded, and when a pipe…. See, when you’ve got a nice fresh pipe that, let’s say it’s this big and it’s clean, when you first installed it a hundred years ago, but over the years it’ll cause tuberculation to grow inside the pipe, that rust. You’ve seen something rust before that’s out laying out in the rain. Rust tends to build up on top of each other.

It’ll corrode and flake, but in a water pipe, it’s a little bit different. It tends to build on top of each other. You’ll have a corrosion that just — it’ll fill up over half the pipe. You’ll lose your volume of the pipe or capacity because “tuberculation” is what it’s called. The accumulated corrosion will just almost stock up the pipe. You’ll have low-pressure issues, causes some discoloration issues with all that corrosion in there.

Once you go in there, you cleaned all that out, you totally restore all the capacity back to that water-main, so your pressure comes back, your flow gets back to the way it originally was a hundred years ago. It’s a great way to keep that pipe in service and you don’t have to dig it up, because that’s a lot of money when you have to dig it up and replace it. The reason we’re doing it is reinvesting into the infrastructure, just maintaining it so it’s a necessary maintenance that has to be done to your water-mains.

Water utilities like Columbus all over the United States have to either replace their water-mains from time to time, or they have to rehabilitate them in some form or fashion. This is a rehabilitation of that existing water-main, and it’s more economical to do it that way, because when you dig up the street and you put in a whole new pipe, you have to pay for a whole new pipe, plus you have to pay for all that labor to dig it up and take out the old one.

You’ve got to pay for all that to put the dirt back in, then you’ve got to fix the street. You’ve got to repave the street, and all that costs a lot of money. It’s a lot cheaper to go and just do it the way we’re doing it. Plus, you don’t have the disruption. It’s just a good way to do it. It’s a state-of-the-art type way to rehabilitate a water-main, and water utilities like Columbus all over the United States use it, and all over the world. It’s a common practice to do it this way.


A reminder to the public:


Vic: We just like to remind the public that this is a reinvestment of back into our infrastructure, to maintain the infrastructure, to keep the infrastructure that we’ve got working for as long as we can. I think most people would understand that it’s just like making repairs on your home. You want to make repairs and keep your home in good working order for as long as you can, and you want to do it in the most economical way that you can.

That’s simply an analogy to what we’re doing downtown with the water mains, we’re simply using the most economical approach to maintaining the underground piping. We try to do it in the safest and the least disruptive way that we can and that will certainly provide benefits to the public because it will restore the water pressure and capacity down there in the downtown area.

Jessica D.-J.: Thank you. It’s really helpful to me. There’s a lot I personally didn’t know, and I think, hopefully, whoever reads it will also get that understanding of that analogy and understand that this is for the better of the city not trying to disrupt anything.

Vic: Yes. It’s a necessary infrastructure improvement, and you don’t want to cause disruptions like that, but they have to be done to improve things. Once you do it, then the improvement’s made, and you can move on and improve another area of town. That’s just the way improvements have to be done, whether it’s road construction, for example, putting in a new road or paving a road, same thing. We have to put up with a little traffic disruption from time to time in order to get that road paved with nice new pavement on top. It’s just things have to be maintained. That’s all we’re doing downtown there. It’s a necessary maintenance project that has to be done.


CWW’s relationship with local high school and college students:


Jessica D.-J.: I appreciate your time and being with me and answering many questions.

Vic: Well, that’s fine. Well, we do a lot of work with students in our lab. I was a lab manager for a while here. That’s how I first started at the Water Works. I’m a chemistry major in college. My background is all in the water quality side, chemistry side of water. At the lab, we have students all the time doing projects. We have typically interns. We have one intern slot that’s normally filled with a CSU student from the chemistry or the biology department at CSU.

We work with the students from not only CSU, but from all the colleges, local colleges in the lab. A lot of the high school students we work with them with projects that they have with their science lab.

The science class, they’ll do a project on water and doing all types of different things. We’ll work with them. If you know anybody that needs a project or whatever, they can always call us we’ll work with them. They have to do the work now, we won’t do it for them. They come up and tell us what they want to do and we’ll help them to figure out what I’m trying to do like some want to prepare bottled water or tap water or something.

Some want to go sample there some streams in town and bring in the water and see what’s the difference between different streams and things like that. As long as it’s dealing with water, we can help them to say, “Okay, well, you need to take one sample here and one sample here, maybe bring in.” We will work it in, and they can come in and watch the test be done in the lab or even do some of the tests trying to get them to show how to do it, and they can do it, and that way, they can say that they did it. It just makes for a good project.

We do it on a case-by-case basis, as long as there’s a limited number, of course, that we could work with. Typically, that’s not a problem. Typically, folks will call us from the high schools and from CSU or whatever, and we’d all help them with it. Typically, more high school than college, but we do have some college like Miller-Motte. Their intern program, actually, as part of their coursework, we helped them for a while, where they had to have so many hours of real lab experience.

As part of their coursework, they would come and just spend maybe four hours a day for a while just working in the lab. We would provide that opportunity for them. They can just work alongside our technicians, but we got a brand new lab. It’s going to be finished at the end of this month, and that’s going to be a showcase, showpiece. It’s going to be brand new. We’ll have more room and we’re real excited about moving into that new lab.

A lot of people don’t know about the water business and the jobs that are available in water, but if you’re environmentally inclined and science-oriented, then yes, there’s a lot of them on the lab side or work quality side. We’ve got lab jobs, chemists like me. That’s how I got in, as a chemist, but you don’t have to be a chemist. You can be a water analyst, a water technician with a high school degree, and we train you on how to do tests. Send you to school, you get certified by the state to do the test.

You have to be certified and get your license, but once you do that, it’s a good job. Plus, we’ve got engineering jobs for several engineers, for those that like to be an engineer. Those deal directly with the water, and then we got the plants. The staff there, they’re the operators that actually treat the water. They’re working at the water plant to actually monitor the water process, the treatment process, and they have to do tests there, too, every 15 minutes.

Most of that’s automated, and it’s run by a computer, but you have to have somebody monitoring that. That whole process of how water’s treated, it’s a 24 by seven, 365 days a week. The water has to flow through and be treated, as treated and used on the fly. We treat about 35 million gallons a day because that’s how much is used every day. You can’t store that kind of water, that volume. No, it’s treated and used every day, that much water.

We do have storage in some of the tanks around town, the water tanks that you see above ground. Those are water towers that store some of that water, but those are mainly for equalizing your pressure and so forth around town. It does provide some storage, but mainly, you’re treating and pumping. You’re just treating all the time. Just very interesting jobs that a lot of people don’t even think about if they’re looking for a job. Wherever they’re at, they can keep an eye out on the city, utility, or water works in their area, there might be a job opening.


Photo by Jessica DeMarco-Jacobson
A water tower in Uptown Columbus. This one is practically a symbol of the city.