This winter's bitter cold has utility companies worried about aging pipes throughout Northwest Indiana, and more issues could surface as the ground begins to thaw.
Winter has taken its toll, but so has age, especially in the region's older cities.
"This winter has been long and cold," said Ed Krusa, CEO of Hammond Water Works. "I don't think we've seen to date the extent of the damage."
During the winter, frost levels, where the ground has frozen under the surface, tends to reach about 3.5 feet under the ground. This winter, the frost line reached up to five feet below the surface in some areas.
"Typically we don't see the frost line exceed 24 to 26 inches," Krusa said. "If you can't keep the circulation in the water main, and the frost line reaches down to the pipes, they can freeze up."
Municipal governments tend to use the average frost levels to determine where they lay water mains and sewer pipes, to prevent the pipes from freezing and blocking service.
But with a deeper freeze, some pipes that don't have a constant flow of water could be clogged with ice.
Concerns about freezing temperatures damaging the service lines to individual customers were more prevalent for Indiana American Water Co., which services more than 250,000 customers throughout Northwest Indiana, including Gary, Hobart, Portage, Merrillville, Chesterton, Winfield and White Oaks.
Joe Loughmiller of Indiana American Water said the snow helped keep winter weather from causing too much damage to the pipes.
"Generally our water mains weren't really that affected. Snow acts as an insulator," Loughmiller said. "If we had the winter weather without the snow, it'd be a different story. We did have quite a few problems with frozen service lines."
As the weather warms, thawing soil could shift and cause more pressure.
"We're still going through the thawing," said Krusa. "If there's any weaknesses in the mains caused by frozen pipes, shifting soil could turn those weaknesses into leaks, and that's where you'll see the damage."
For replacing water mains, local governments wait until the streets are facing repairs before digging under them to replace old pipes.
In Hammond and East Chicago, whenever streets and curbs are replaced, water mains being replaced as well. Projects planned by those cities include the costs of the pipes underneath.
More than $53.3 million has been invested in water infrastructure from American Water in Northwest Indiana since July 2011. That total includes future projects planned through the end of November.
But utilities can't keep up with the growing demand to replace aging infrastructure.
"The cycle that we're replacing most of these pipes, it's far beyond their expected life ratings," Loughmiller said. "A lot of these pipes are operating on borrowed time."
If a main water line requires multiple repairs because it's too worn down, the costs will end up being more than the simple replacement.
"If you're not careful, you could end up paying more for repairs than for replacing the actual mains," Loughmiller said.