Gripes about pipes: Repairs disrupt College Hill
Three weeks ago, I watched Teodoro Miranda, Juan Romero and Alberto Hernandez lower a thick white block-long tube into the pit they’d dug in front of 120 S. Mendenhall St. in Greensboro’s historic College Hill. Sitting on my friend Tom Abrams’ brick steps, I dripped with perspiration, but the faces of the men working in the bright hot, muggy August sunlight didn’t glisten.
Embarrassed by how I sweated even in the shade, I admired the competence with which they performed the kind of hard but extremely technical manual labor I’ve never done unless one counts the summer I got community service and my supervisor violated regulations by teaching the college boy to use a jackhammer.
Decades after that bruising experience, I watched this crew do something requiring far more skill. As Miranda directed from above, Romero climbed down and balanced like a log-roller on the high-density polyethylene they were inserting inside the 90-year-old terracotta, while Hernandez operated the Front Shovel Excavator that pushed the new lining through the old sewer pipe like a catheter in a vein.
Putting down my notepad, I walked onto the sunbaked asphalt to talk to the men whose names I wanted to learn before I took photos of their work. They were extremely gracious, and after Miranda handed me his business card, Romero and Hernandez showed me their IDs so I could spell their names correctly. Classes have started at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, and College Hill was full of students. When several young women in short skirts strode past, the men smiled and nodded back at the one who said “Hola!,” but didn’t stare after her or even glance at the others. Their demeanor was in marked contrast to the typical gringo hardhat crew. From further down South Mendenhall came the sound of other crews at work. My neighborhood had been full of holes, heavy equipment, gravel, dirt, pipes, dust, smoke, leaking water and “STREET CLOSED” signs for months.
Two days before, their supervisor, Larry Kirby of KRG Utilities Inc., explained what they’d be doing and invited me to photograph the process. KRG is one of several contractors hired by the City of Greensboro to rehabilitate College Hill’s nearly century-old sewers. Elsewhere, other contractors worked on the neighborhood’s water, much of which now flowed through temporary pipes running along the gutters.
Two things that KRG specializes in are pipe bursting and slip lining. The former is a method of replacing buried pipelines without digging a trench their full length. Launching and receiving pits, such as the one outside 120 S. Mendenhall, are used instead. More cost-effective, expedient, less disruptive and quieter than trenching, the pipe bursting process is preferred for urban areas.
Slip lining is a method for trenchless rehabilitation of existing pipelines, in which a smaller high-density polyethylene (HDPE) carrier pipe is butt-fused (shut up, Beavis) together and inserted into an existing host pipeline. Using workforce and machinery, the new liner pipe is either pulled or pushed into place. (The technical terms in the previous descriptions come from my conversation with Kirby, but I had to refer to Wikipedia and the KRG website to understand them.)
“What we’ve got to do is lay out the existing services,” Kirby told me. “Then we do an activity report showing exactly where the service is for each house. Then we start digging and then comes the slip lining through the existing pipe. That’s what we’re fixing to do here once we’ve got the road closed.”
The week before, his crew installed a 450-foot-long slip line on my own block of Mendenhall, inserting the 7-inch new plastic pipe inside the old 8-inch clay one, then reconnecting 11 services. “This week, we’re going to run this all the way to Market Street.” He said he hoped that would be done in the next couple of weeks. “Then a water crew comes in behind us. Because they’ve got it to get it all done, all the cuts in the road before the resurfacing crew comes.”
I asked him about the deteriorating condition of the original terracotta pipes, which had been installed in the very early 20th century. He said that many of the places where the old piping had been joined together were compromised. “That old terracotta would last practically forever if it wasn’t for the roots of the trees creeping into it trying to find water.”
Every resident of College Hill I talked with praised the men doing the work. Although, I heard multiple complaints about not only the way in which residents were being informed (or not) by the city of when streets would be closed. Recently, I posted a comment on www.NextDoor.com, asking my neighbors for quotes.
College Hill resident Stephanie Jobe said the workers had been very professional but expressed her frustration “that the city has been only reactionary with information.” She wrote that, only after several weeks of complaints on the Next Door College Hill site, did she find a tag on her door with what she described as “very vague” information. She wrote that neighborhood association vice president David Arneke “has managed to occasionally get updates out of them,” but that he only got responses after multiple questions were asked on social media. “I don’t think the city is communicating between the contractors as much as I would hope. Some of the closures between them have turned the neighborhood into a veritable maze. Especially with the construction traffic on campus, that had to negotiate paths with the city, it just seems like chaos.”
The same day, neighborhood resident Denise Ross replied to my post with more compliments for the actual workers. “They were more than helpful guiding us in and out if our driveway that was blocked for many days. Having moved from Atlanta (home of many sinkholes due to ancient infrastructure) I am so happy this work has and is being done. Inconvenient? Yes, but not as inconvenient as seeing your car or house in the bottom of a hole.”
College Hill Neighborhood Association treasurer Arlen Nicolls told me a similar story when I interviewed her on the street in late August. “If they have to move their equipment, they’re glad to do it, and if they must block off residences, like when they had to partially block off our driveway, they’ll readily stop what they’re doing and come help get you out or do what they need to do.” She said the thought the crews were working expeditiously, “very carefully but also as quickly as they can, and they are accommodating and helpful when they need to modify things on the ground to help us as residents, visitors, and students.”
The day before I interviewed Kirby, I encountered Arneke walking his dog.
“It was pretty disruptive for about a month last winter, and then six weeks of summer,” he told me, especially after a hole was dug in front of his driveway. “There were times during the day when we couldn’t get in or out. But as much as a problem as it was when it was going on, it’s something that needed to be done.” His furry companion offered no comment but growled at the sight, sound, and smell of the equipment being used to dig a hole at the intersection of Spring Garden and Mendenhall.
I’ve lived on South Mendenhall for several decades. The fact I don’t own a car means that the ongoing work has been less of an inconvenience to me than many of my neighbors, aside from those mornings when I woke at 7:30 a.m. to the sound of the drill breaking up the asphalt in front of my apartment and then two large and alarmed cats demanded reassurance by trying to sit on my head. However, that’s not what inspired me to write this article.
Instead, it was the recommendation by one local business owner that “you need to write about this – they did a bunch of work fixing those pipes months ago, but the work failed, and now they’re back doing it all over again.” Subsequent investigation suggests that’s not the case, although I can certainly understand how it’s seemed that way.
“I know it’s a mess out there right now, and it does look like we’re redoing stuff that we already did earlier this year, but trust me, we’re not,” said professional engineer and engineering supervisor of the city’s Capital Improvements program Jay Guffey, when invited to address the Aug. 27 meeting of the College Hill Neighborhood Association.
Guffey explained that sewer and water repairs are being done at the same time “so we can get the paving done at once, instead of the sewer line gets put in and they pave it, then come back a month later to work on the water line, tearing it up and then repaving it again.” He explained that work on the water lines could only be done during the summer months. “We have these exposed pipes bypassing the water while we’re working on the lines, and if that froze over and the pipes burst, we’ll have a big mess.” But he said the sewer work can be done year-round. “To put it bluntly, poop don’t freeze.” He added that “water and sewer are typically very close to each other, so you’ll see holes that may look like we’re doing something right on top of what we did before.”
“This is a huge project,” said neighborhood association board member Dan Curry in response to Guffey. “It’s going to have very long-term positive impacts on the neighborhood, and I particularly like that you’re trying to do it all at one time, even though that’s why it’s so involved and messy.” Curry explained that the city would normally “spread this stuff out over two or three or four years, but we’re trying to get it all done basically in one swoop, and I really appreciate that. I know there’s going to be lots of concerns, as well have with, with some of the difficulties, but I think it’s a great asset they’re putting into our neighborhood.”
Several present at the meeting complained of lack of transparency on the city’s part, with Guffey listening patiently and intently but not always being able to give an answer that satisfied the person complaining
“I wonder if contractors could do a better job of communicating back and forth with you,” said James Keith, the association president. Guffey promised he’d look into improving that. Keith repeated the complaint made by many that the door hangers being left on residences weren’t very specific except when notifying when water was going to temporarily cut off, “about which they’ve been great.” But he said that earlier and more specific notifications about street closings were needed.
Keith also said that “the neighborhood is a pass-through for thousands of other people a day, and they quite frankly, don’t give a damn. The communication necessity is even stronger here.” Guffey acknowledged that not having grown up here, he hadn’t realized how heavy student traffic was in the neighborhood, or how many buildings contained multiple residences.
On Sept. 14, Guffey posted a message to Next Door College Hill thanking everyone who’d attended the meeting for their input, and listing the work scheduled for the next couple of weeks, although he acknowledged that the then-upcoming Hurricane Florence might alter those plans. On Sept. 20, I called him and asked how much the rainfall had affected the ongoing rehabilitation.
He said that contractors had been delayed by only one day. “They did have some potholes that they had to re-pack the asphalting around, due to the water having loosened it, but we didn’t have a lot of impact from Florence, other than one down day.”
He explained that the work on Walker should be over by the end of October. “Work on Mendenhall will probably end two weeks after that, then we have College Place to do, and then there’s the sewer line that comes out of Jackson and goes into Spring Garden, that’s going to be further into the winter time. Our plan is to be out of College Hill by the end of the year.”
Guffey also repeated something that he said multiple times during the neighborhood association meeting when he’d urged anyone with any questions to call him at (336) 373-7779 or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“Anybody with any questions about the rehab work, please give me a call and I’ll be glad to talk.”
Ian McDowell is the author of two published novels, numerous anthologized short stories, and a whole lot of nonfiction and journalism, some of which he’s proud of and none of which he’s ashamed of.