Preparing Your Water System for Winter Weather


Is your water system prepared for winter this year? The extreme weather that can come with the winter season is only growing more severe as climate change intensifies. Many areas across the country have experienced some of the coldest temperatures they have ever had in the last decade. In this era, winter weather can even impact the most unexpected places. 

The historic winter outbreak that occurred in Southeast Texas earlier this year proves that unexpected winter weather can happen anywhere. The storm caused power outages, broken pipes, and billions of dollars in damage because the state was not prepared for winter weather. Even though you think your utility might not have to worry about preparing for winter because you live in a historically warm climate, it never hurts to be prepared.

Preparing for winter is also a smart financial decision. Water officials say that allowing backflow preventers and outdoor water pipes to freeze can be a costly mistake. Frozen water lines can also cause expensive water leaks. Although winter weather can be intense and unpredictable, there are things that you can do to be more prepared. 

Impacts of Extreme Cold and Winter Weather
Cold weather can bring freezing temperatures, heavy snowfall, and ice storms that can have multiple compounding impacts on a community that may include, but are not limited to: 

  • Pipe breaks throughout the distribution system.
  • Loss of power and communication lines.
  • Limited access to facilities due to icy roads or debris such as downed tree limbs.
  • Reduced workforce due to unsafe travel conditions throughout the service area.
  • Source water quality impacts due to increased amount of road salt in stormwater runoff.
  • Potential flooding risk due to snowpack melt and ice jams (accumulations of ice in rivers or streams).
  • Potential surface water supply challenges as ice and frozen slush can block valves and restrict intakes.
Wastewater Cold Weather Maintenance 
Much like drinking water utilities, wastewater utilities can experience ice formation in various process components and reaction rate changes in chemical, physical, and biological reactions. However, they also experience ones specific to wastewater facilities.

Cold weather can impact the bacteria that many wastewater treatment plants use to treat their wastewater. This is because the bacteria typically perform best between 75 and 100 degrees Fahrenheit and when the temperature dips below that the bacteria struggle to consume the waste. When bacteria slow down their consumption of waste BOD (Biological Oxygen Demand) and COD (Chemical Oxygen Demand) levels in the effluent rise. One way to maintain acceptable effluent levels is by adding additional chemicals through the process of bioaugmentation. 

Strengthen Your Resiliency 
Tips to help prepare your utility: 

  • Make sure all your employees have the proper equipment.
  • Check your supply inventory.
  • Stock up on supplies in case your employees need to stay overnight.
  • Exercise your valves.
  • Weatherproof your booster stations.
  • Note whether your employees have the equipment they need for these conditions.
  • Stock extra fuel.

The 2017 small systems FYI from the Indiana Section of AWWA covers additional winterizing tips for water utilities specifically related to security, hydrants, storage tanks, backflow, emergency preparation, wells, worker needs, and pumping equipment. The U.S. EPA recommends coordinating with your state’s Water/Wastewater Agency Response Network (WARN) if an emergency should arise. 

Customer Communication
Communicating with your customers is an important part of preparing your utility for winter weather. Communicating with customers helps to create a trustworthy relationship, especially during an emergency like an extreme weather event. 

You can help make sure your customers are prepared by sharing resources like information on how to winterize their homes and prevent frozen pipes. You can also draft water advisory messages ahead of time to ensure they follow public information protocols and have appropriate distribution channels.

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