Heat wave pressures city’s infrastructure


Alexandrians close to buckling under the weight of this summer’s exceptional heat are not alone: Some of the roads want to, too.

Asphalt has cracked and buckled on roads throughout the city, water mains have failed as dried earth shifts around them, weeks of air conditioning have heaped wattage on the city’s power grid all because of the incessant heat that has dominated the area since June 1.

“In a number of places around the city, we’ve had some cracks and some buckling in the pavement” because of the heat, according to Rich Baier, director of the city’s transportation department.

Motorists on Interstate 395 reported pavement heaves in the HOV lanes and phoned about sidewalks rupturing. And in other places, it’s what lies beneath the hardtop that is acting up because of the heat.

On Thursday, two blocks of Mt. Vernon Avenue were closed because of an underground cable failure that produced an underground fire, according to a city news alert.

Two days later, a water main broke along King Street near Bradlee Shopping Center, sapping water and obstructing traffic at the city’s busiest intersection.

It was the fifth main break in the last two months and the fourth in July, according to city news alerts and Virginia American Water, the city’s primary water provider.

With one exception, a July 12 construction accident near the junction of Telegraph Road and Eisenhower Avenue, the issues have been related to heat, according to the water utility.

“When the ground is hot, it gets dry and shifts,” said David Barney, a spokesman for Virginia American Water. “The slightest shift could break a main.”

“These mains weren’t old at all and it did not appear to be caused by a faulty main or anything like that,” he said.

Barney said unlike other places around the country the broken mains in Alexandria have not been predicated on the age of the ducts. Customers’ water fees pay for the cost for repairs and upgrades.

By comparison, since June 1, Fairfax Water has reported 42 main breaks in its customer base of 1.7 million in the county and Washington Suburban Sanitation Commission has had 86 “breaks and leaks” in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties where it serves 1.8 million people, according to spokespeople for each firm.

Last summer there were three water main breaks in the city, Barney said.

Yet, as one 90-degree day leapfrogs the one that came before and occasionally spike into triple-digit territory it becomes increasingly tougher for the city’s roads and underground utilities to hold their own.

“All the infrastructure that we maintain is very influenced by temperature,” Baier said. “And these extremes that we have [parts of infrastructure] can’t take the extremes.

“Hopefully, at least for a short while if not for the summer, we’ll be out of these triple digits which are at that extreme.”

And “extreme” is one of the more polite ways of describing the heat over the last several weeks.

June 2010 registered as the hottest on record, according to the National Weather Service, and the summer’s first 100-degree day that month was also the first recorded at Reagan National Airport since August 2007.

July has been no respite, with 19 days and counting of temperatures in the 90s, according to the NWS.

Unlike other parts of the country inundated with hot weather, Virginia Dominion Power has not had any “significant outages” related to the heat, according to Le-Ha Anderson, the company’s local spokesperson.

Despite the remarkable heat that has rolled through the area in multi-day swaths this summer, Anderson said her company’s usage record from August 8, 2007 still stands at 19,688 megawatts.

But with the traditionally steamy month of August still to come, the heat-related issues aren’t going anywhere. Barney said the number of water main breaks this summer have exceeded expectations so far.

“The summer is still young, too,” he said.