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City's unseen sewer work deserves to be noticed

'Cured in place' process cuts down on headaches, cost

Saturday, November 9, 2013 - 12:01 am

As The News-Sentinel reported Friday, several of the sewer projects that for weeks have turned downtown into a confusing, constantly shifting maze of closed streets will soon be complete. But motorists' headaches would have been even worse if not for an innovative process that allows crews to improve underground pipes at a far lower price – and with far less disruption.

“It's like an inverted sock,” City Utilities Program Manager Mike Hicks said of the “cured in place” process being used to line 150-year-old brick sewers on Clinton and Calhoun streets – a process that can extend the life of a sewer for at least 50 years at a fraction of the cost of new construction without the need to tear up then repair pavement.

I know, I know: Nobody thinks about the unseen utility lines that snake beneath the surface of this and every other town in America. Until something goes wrong, that is. So with so much attention paid to wasteful government programs that don't work – Obamacare comes immediately to mind -- it seems only fair to notice when officials demonstrate ingenuity and efficiency. And that's just what has been happening, almost unseen, in downtown Fort Wayne these past few weeks and, on and off, since 1979.

Developed in England, the process is deceptively simple: After a sewer is inspected and cleared of obstructions by a remote-controlled robot, workers (with St. Louis-based Insitusform in this case) lower a polypropylene liner into the sewer through a manhole. Water heated to 160 degrees or so is then pumped through the membrane, which cures over several hours until it is as hard as the sewer itself.

“We've been an aggressive proponent (of this technology),” said Hicks, who often visits other cities to promote the process. Of Fort Wayne's 7.1 million feet of sewers, about 600,000 feet have been treated this way, and even the first “cured in place” sewers, now more than 30 years old, “still look great,” Hicks said.

The process isn't applicable in all cases, of course, which is why downtown Fort Wayne has been such a mess. Most of the work, affecting Main, Berry, Fairfield, Pearl and other streets, has been to separate the city's storm and sanitary sewers as required by the federal government. New sewers still require old-fashioned pipe.

But when existing sewers are in reasonable shape or not too large, cured-in-place represents the process of choice for preventive maintenance, Hicks said.

And the reasons are obvious. Although the work has closed some lanes on Clinton, the street itself has remained open. And where a new sewer might cost $1,500 per foot to install, the lining costs around $2 per foot, City Utilities spokesman Frank Suarez said.

And after the work is complete, those old sewers – some of which date back to the Civil War – should be at least as good as new: Hard enough to be durable and resist infiltration by roots, but smooth enough to resist the flow-impeding snags loose bricks can encourage.

The process can emit an unpleasant but harmless plastic odor, but even that has been minimal due to the cool temperature, Suarez said.

So if you're driving on Calhoun Street in the next few weeks, see a big tube inserted into a manhole and tempted to complain about the truck and workers slowing traffic, don't. It could have been worse.

And if the federal government ran City Utilities, it no doubt would be.

Women who (still) care

In September I wrote about Fort Wayne's new “100+ Women Who Care” group, which encourages members to donate $100 each quarter to a charity chosen by popular vote during an hour-long meeting.

That's $10,000 if 100 women participate, but just 38 members were in place for the group's first meeting in July, which resulted in a $3,800 donation to Broadway Christian Church's Inasmuch program, which provides food and other services to the poor.

By the time the group met again last mo nth, however, 50 women had joined – and voted to present their $5,000 gift to the Christ Child Society, which was established in Washington, D.C., in 1887 and has a 200-member Fort Wayne chapter that supports children in need.

“We are getting there (to 100 members), slowly but surely,” chapter co-founder Carol Sprandel said.

I bet they make it.

This column is the commentary of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the views or opinions of The News-Sentinel. Email Kevin Leininger at or call him at 461-8355.