The United Water Blog sat down with Tom Neilan, senior director of operations for United Water New Jersey to find out.
United Water Blog: A new winter storm that is expected to bring significant snow and severe cold is coming to the region. You provide water service for 800,000 customers in Northern New Jersey. What do you do to prepare for something like this?
Tom Neilan: Well, our priority is to keep the water flowing, despite any conditions that may arise. Since the storm came onto the radar, we have been carefully monitoring the weather and taking necessary action to protect the integrity of our facilities and water supplies. Moreover, our emergency crews are aware that despite the weather, they must be available 24 hours a day to respond to any situation that may occur.
United Water Blog: You said you have been taking actions to prepare – can you give us some examples of what that might look like at one of your major treatment facilities and throughout your network?
Tom Neilan: We have been testing backup generators. In the event of an electricity loss, we have invested significantly in backup sources to keep the water flowing. Water storage facilities – such as reservoirs – are kept full. And we have an extra supply of water treatment chemicals on hand. In the event of prolonged road or rail closures, water quality will not falter.
As I mentioned before, our dedicated emergency personnel will be vigilant and available around the clock.
United Water Blog: It sounds like you have good preparedness measures in place. But I know that mother nature can be unpredictable. Is there anything that area residents can and should do to safeguard their drinking water supply?
Tom Neilan: Residents in the storms’ path can and should check their personal emergency preparedness plans. Plans for any type of weather event should always include storing extra tap water – in the event of an unforeseen issue.
FEMA – the Federal Emergency Management Agency recommends that before filling containers with drinking water, residents should clean them thoroughly with soap and water and rinse with clean water. And I fully support these measures. Furthermore, residents should the containers with the original tops; place a “drinking water” label on the containers and include a storage date. Be careful not to store containers in direct sunlight or in areas near toxic substances such as gasoline or chemicals.
United Water Blog: I understand that homeowners are responsible for maintaining water pipes on their property – are there any extra precautions that they can take to safeguard their home water infrastructure?
Tom Neilan: Absolutely. Homeowners can help avoid frozen pipes and water meters on their properties during this severe cold weather. It is extremely important to insulate household piping to protect against cold drafts in unheated spaces. Even a small draft can cause freezing. And freezing temperatures can destroy a meter, which would have to be replaced at the customer’s expense.
United Water Blog: What happens if a homeowner loses water service during the freeze? Should they call United Water? Should they call a plumber?
Tom Neilan: Well there is a test that homeowners can do to answer that question. Partial water service in a home indicates that the freeze is located in a pipe somewhere in the house. In that case – the resident is best to call a plumber.
However, a complete lack of water service can be the result of a frozen water meter or a frozen pipe leading from the water main in the street to the house. And in that case – residents should call customer service.
If there is a system-wide or broader water issue, we will post information for customers on our website, on social media and we will make media and local officials aware of the incident.
United Water Blog: We know it is uncomfortable to be without water. Are there any other – potentially more damaging problems that may arise from frozen pipes?
Tom Neilan: When a homeowner identifies a frozen pipe, it is important for them to take measures to safely clear frozen blockages as soon as possible to minimize the danger of pipes bursting in some inaccessible spot. The resulting leak could cause serious property damage. It is widely recommended that residents thaw pipes and meters by applying hot air from a hair dryer, electric heater, or by using a heating pad. Open a water valve slightly so that it will be apparent when thawing has occurred. Under no circumstances should hot water or a blow torch be used on a frozen pipe or water meter. The intense heat could cause the very break the customer is trying to prevent, and a blow torch presents a serious safety hazard.
The permanent solution to frozen water lines is proper insulation to protect them from drafts of cold air. Water meters located in unheated cabinets, garages and basements can be wrapped in insulating materials or even newspapers as a temporary measure. Pipes exposed to severe temperatures can be wrapped with heating tape which can be purchased at most hardware stores.