During the winter season, it is not unusual to see crews from OCWA, Central New York’s Water Authority, spread out across our five-county service territory (Onondaga, Oswego, Madison, Oneida and Cayuga counties) working to fix water main breaks, thereby ensuring the safe, reliable supply of water to our 100,000+ customers.

What is less obvious, and what some customers periodically inquire about, is why not all OCWA workers are continuously engaged in work when they are at a job site.

To answer this question, it is helpful to understand the process OCWA must follow to fix a water main.  First and foremost, safety is the paramount concern, not only for OCWA employees, but for our customers as well.  While we always work promptly, we avoid taking shortcuts which could compromise safety.

Before work can begin on any water main break, New York State law requires that all underground utilities at the site be “marked out” by the respective utility (National Grid, street water leak with orange conesmunicipal sewer department, Verizon, etc.) before digging occurs.  This can take up to two hours for emergency situations (large water main breaks), or longer for smaller leaks.

While waiting for mark outs, OCWA crews prepare for the main repair by locating valves that will be closed to isolate the leak.  Once the preparatory work is complete, the crew must wait for proper mark outs prior to beginning excavation.

When utilities are in close proximity to each other (which is often the case), these other utilities may require that their on-site representative observe excavation to avoid further damage.  In addition, at times utility companies have difficulties locating their lines which can cause an additional two-to-four hour delay in excavation work.  All this while OCWA crews must wait patiently to get at our pipes.

It is also important to understand that OCWA maintenance crews vary in size depending on the nature of the work. Each crew member has a role to complete the scope of the work.  Larger diameter water main repairs require more equipment and sometimes larger equipment and additional personnel to complete repairs. Water mains that are buried at deeper depths require more excavation and more crew members to expose and repair the main in a safe manner.

Additionally, some water mains are located in areas subject to road traffic and require flagmen to maintain safe traffic patterns.  Cold weather water main repairs require additional equipment, such as a Hoe Ram (mounted jack hammer) to break through pavement and frost.

Finally, complicated shutdowns may require more personnel to locate and close valves to isolate a leak. At times, additional leak detection personnel may be required to pinpoint leaks to minimize excavation.

For all these reasons, customers should not be overly surprised or concerned if they observe OCWA employees not always actively engaged at a job site.  There is most likely a good reason for it.