Water Authority workers combat cold

When it comes to working outside in the cold, boots are the most important thing, according to Barry Becker.

“I don’t care what they cost,” Becker said of his footwear, noting he spent $200 on the pair he had on Thursday morning.

An Altoona Water Authority foreman, Becker was outside near Mansion Park, helping to fix one of three water main breaks that surfaced the previous day.

Cold weather brings frozen, shifting ground, which cracks pipes and generates the busy season for authority repair crews.

It was late morning, and downright pleasant by then, as workers finished the repair of the leak at Fifth Avenue and 37th Street, but it was about 12 degrees when their shift started at 7 a.m., according to the National Weather Service.

His men were wearing face masks at that time, Becker said.

They set up to repair the Fifth Avenue break on Wednesday at the start of the daytime shift, but left the site when word came of a bigger leak in a busier place nearby – Sixth Avenue and Logan Boulevard, said Tim Manley, the authority’s supervisor of water maintenance.

That more urgent leak kept Becker’s daylight crew – one of two authority crews that work the first shift – and its evening crew busy for 15 hours straight, according to Manley.

Workers set up cones and signboards on the boulevard to protect themselves from traffic, dug three holes before finding the leak and cut through 6 inches of blacktop and 12 inches of exceptionally hard concrete, according to Manley.

The leak sprang from the intersection of a 12- and a 6-inch main in the intersection, he said.

Their fortitude impressed David Wladaver of Palm Harbor, Fla., who was visiting his recently-turned-100-year-old mother-in-law, who lives on the corner.

“You could look at them and just see they were just so cold,” Wladaver said. “So bloody cold.”

Yet they were cordial and didn’t complain about the conditions when he spoke to them, Wladaver said.

The other daylight crew worked six hours to repair a break on a 6-inch main along 15th Street off Pleasant Valley Boulevard Wednesday.

No customers lost service as a result of the Fifth Avenue break, according to Becker. About a dozen lost service because of the Logan Boulevard break and a small number because of the 15th Street break, Becker said.

In the city, valves are plentiful, so workers can limit the extent of outages easily, Becker said.

Becker, 47, admits he sometimes dreads going out on cold mornings.

“Every year that I get older, the weather is harder [to deal with],” he said.

In his nearly 20 years with the authority, the winter of 1994 was the worst, Becker said. At one point, workers were on the job 30 hours straight, he said.

“[But] when people are out of water, we don’t stop,” said crew member Ben Fahr.

It can take twice as long to do a job in frigid weather, given the trouble it inflicts on workers themselves and their tools and equipment – including pumps, Becker said.

“I give them all the credit in the world,” Wladaver said.

Mirror Staff Writer William Kibler is at 949-7038.