What to Do After a Water Main Break
May 14, 2019

There are several  ways that a property owner will first become aware that their water main is broken. It is important to first identify which variable best relates to you.

  1. Witnessing water coming out of the roadway or sidewalk in front of your home.
  2. Experiencing water leaking through your foundation wall
  3. Experiencing a loss in water pressure
  4. Noticed a sinkhole forming in front of your property
  5. Someone is performing work at your house and caused the water main to leak by accident
Immediate action
  1. If you are experiencing a water leak on the outside of your home it is important to contact the town or city you live in and make them aware. A water leak in front of your property does not necessarily mean that your water main is leaking, it very well may be the city pipes or even a neighbors pipe.
  2. If you are experiencing water through your foundation wall it is suggested to locate a sump pump as it will come in use if the water begins to flood your home.
  3. If you see the water leaking from the pipe inside your home it is suggested to apply a repair clamp or some form of a repair putty as a temporary solution. Please be mindful that both of these options are temporary resolutions and if not permanently fixed you may end up with a larger problem.
  4. A sinkhole in front of your property can potentially become a huge liability in addition to the actual problem with your pipes. In this case it is suggested to block off the area where the hole is forming and contact the bureau that regulates the public roadway and sidewalks in your area.
The cause

Next it is best to understand what may have caused the water main break before concluding on the best way to resolve the problem.

It is first suggested to identify the material makeup of your existing water main. The best way to do this is to access to point in your home where the pipe enters from the roadway. It is also common for your water meter and main control valve to be installed in the same location where the pipe enters the house. If your pipe is made of copper it will have an orange and red tone.

Copper pipe entering home from street
Copper pipe

If your pipe is made of lead it will look black or brown and most likely have what looks like a bubble at the point where the pipe connects to the main control valve. The reason for this bubble is due to a process called lead wiping which was used to connect lead pipes before they were made illegal.

Lead pipe connected by lead wiping
Lead pipe

If you are still not sure of the material make-up it is suggested to consult with a Licensed Plumber to assist with the analysis.

If the water main is made of lead there is a strong possibility that the pipe is anywhere from 60-100 years old and is leaking due to  natural wear and tear. If the pipe is made of copper your licensed plumber should obtain city records to determine when the water main was installed and if there was ever a repair completed on the pipe. If the water main was installed in the 1960’s there is still chance that this will fall under wear and tear. If there was a repair completed on the copper pipe there is a possibility that the connections have failed resulting in a leak.

Failed water main repair
Failed water main repair

If you are aware of another utility contractor that was recently working in the same location of your water main leak it is important to document as much information as possible. Save any video footage, pictures or signs the contractor may have used as a form of notification.  You want to provide as much supporting documentation in the event that the contractor denies the claim.

If you pipe is made of copper or ductile iron you may want to consider repairing the pipe in the single location where it was damaged. If your pipe is made of lead or galvanized you will be required to change the entire service pipe from the roadway to inside your home.

Is the water main break flooding your basement?

In this scenario it is most important to identify the best way to stop the water main break from flooding the basement or come up with a temporary solution to avoid damage.

If you sewer trap is located in the ground in the same area that the water leak is entering your home you may be in luck. In this scenario you can redirect the water directly into the sewer trap which will exit your home and into the city sewer. Simply remove the caps from the top of the trap and divert the leaking water any way you can.

Diverting water main break into sewer trap

If you do not have a sewer trap in the ground and the water is at a constant it is suggested to force the water into one location such as a large bucket. Once you have the water flowing into a central location a sump pump should be used to remove the water from the bucket and into your sewer trap, or out towards the sidewalk in front of your home.

Sump pump removes water from broken pipe
Sump pump removes water leak from broken pipe
The permanent resolution

By this time you should have a good idea if you are going to entertain a repair on the existing water main or if you are required to replace the entire water service from the home, to the city water main located in the roadway.

If you still are not sure it is highly suggested to weigh the pros and cons with a licensed master plumber who has experience working below ground. There are many ideas and variables that an experienced sub surface water main and sewer contractor will bring to the table and assist with your decision making process.

The full line replacement

Replacing your water main from the house to the city main is a standardized process and in many cases is more simple than attempting a repair on your water main. The first step is making a hole in the roadway over the city water main and close the water at the tap or wet connection.

New wet connection for sprinkler main
New wet connection

tap connection
tap connection

At the same time the crew will continue with the additional excavations in preparation for the piping installation. When allowable the pipe will be installed through an underground tunnel and pulled from one excavation to the next, until it is finally re-connected  in side the house.

Copper water line tunnel
Copper water line tunnel
The water main repair

First you must confirm that it is legal to perform a repair on your water main. If the existing pipe is made galvanized or lead pipe it is 100% illegal to perform a repair. In some cases the homeowner may attempt to hire a non licensed plumber to work at a more cost effective rate. Please be aware that these scenarios usually do not end up well. If the city finds out about the illegal repair both the plumber and homeowner can get in a lot trouble. In addition, repairing this type of pipe is not going to last long and you will end up in the same scenario that you are currently in.

If your licensed plumber feels a repair is a viable option you should try to identify exactly where the pipe is leaking. Do  you see the leak coming from the pipe with your own eyes? If not, please understand that it is very risky to assume that the pipe is leaking somewhere in the area where the water main break is surfacing. It is possible to complete a successful repair however, you should be aware of the risk associated with looking for an active leak. In some cases the water can travel from 100′ away and may take the contractor more than a day to complete what was estimated for a one day job.  In this case the homeowner may be subject to additional cost that may amount to a greater cost for replacing the entire water main.

If you wish to assume the risk the repair may be completed by excavating over the city water main to close the connection from the city pipe. The next step would be to dig in the area where we suspect the leak to be and make a spot repair on the pipe and open the water main tap connection once completed.

Copper water main repair
Copper water main repair

Another possibility would be if the city or another utility contractor had already excavated in the roadway and was able to provide factual information on exactly what has caused the water main break and the best way to repair. Even in this case it is best to obtain pictures as there are scenarios where the message may get lost in translation resulting in additional problems.

Note- Pending the size and type of pipe you may be required to have an on site inspection which is required by the city.