The next time the temperature dips below zero, say a prayer for, or lift a glass to, your local public works crew, the village staffers who are out working in freezing weather while we’re all tucked up warm at home.
During the recent stretch of frigid temperatures, workers in Flossmoor and Homewood were out at all hours of the day and night plowing roads, fixing broken water mains and helping out in emergency situations.
Flossmoor Public Works Director John Brunke said the village experienced a higher-than-normal number of water main breaks over the holiday season.
“Over the last three weeks, we’ve had 10 or so main breaks. That’s normal in this kind of weather,” Brunke said Tuesday. “Our crew is getting ready to repair one tonight in the downtown area.”
He said the work is scheduled to take place overnight to avoid disruptions in the business area in downtown Flossmoor. For this leak and a few others, an outside contractor has been called in to perform sound tests to pinpoint the exact location of the leaks and reduce exploratory digging.
John Schaefer, Homewood’s public works director, said the lack of heavy snow cover allowed the frigid frost to permeate deeper into the ground, leading to more water main breaks than normal and frozen home service lines around town.
“We’ve also had homes with frozen pipes and pipes that have broken where we’ve had to go and shut the water off,” Schaefer said.
“I always say this time of year is a good reminder that if you go on vacation or you’ll be away for an extended period of time, just shut the water off at the water meter. That way, if you have a pipe that freezes and breaks, it’s not flooding out your home. Especially during the winter time it’s important, but any time of year it’s a good idea.”
Concerns for clearing roadways
Village crews also worked hard to keep roads as clear as possible from snow and ice, a process that involves much more than just driving some plows around. In addition to traditional rock salt, both Homewood and Flossmoor utilize brine solutions that prevent snow from sticking on pavement and also help the rock salt to activate. The solutions limit the use of rock salt, saving money and reducing the amount of chloride runoff into the water system.
“We’re mandated to work to reduce chlorides in the system,” Schaefer said. “Once salt is diluted in water, it doesn’t disappear. It goes into storm sewer, creeks, streams and waterways.”
It’s challenging to balance the desire to protect the local water system and save money by reducing salt usage, while also accommodating residents who expect roads to be clear, Schaefer said. And it’s public works employees who are responsible for all these winter jobs.
Unusual work in unusual weather
Public Works crews also perform some more unexpected tasks on very cold days. According to Brunke, crews in Flossmoor assisted firefighters during the fire that destroyed a house on New Year’s Day. As firefighters battled the blaze — with water, of course — village workers did their best to lay rock salt to melt the layer of ice developing on the ground.
“The fire department had a lot of ice buildup from fighting the fire. We assist where we can and put salt down,” Brunke said. “We get called out quite a bit in the wintertime if there’s a fire, to make sure (firefighters) are not slipping around and falling, which is a big danger.”
During the recent fire, they also helped in another kind of unexpected way. The extreme cold made water freeze up in the fire hoses before crews had time to roll them back up. Public Works employees hauled the frozen hoses in the beds of pickup trucks back to the fire station to thaw before they could be rolled up, Brunke said.
In the past, public works crews have also had to use torches to melt frozen fire hydrants that can’t be opened and those that freeze up during use.
“It’s a team effort between the Public Works Department and the Fire Department,” Brunke said.
As the weather warms this week, public works crews are getting some much-deserved rest and preparing for whatever comes next.
Schaefer said his crew is tired after all the recent tasks related to the weather, which they perform along with their normal jobs.
Brunke said he’s keeping an eye on the winter.
“We’ve seen worse and longer cold spells than this last one,” Brunke said. “But we’re just getting started with winter, so we’ll see.”