, Ohio — Physics and winter don't mix. At least when it comes to water lines, which suffer frequent breaks in the colder months as the frozen ground weighs on the iron pipes.

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December through February, the water department repairs anywhere from 150 to 500 water main breaks each month, depending on the temperature. The colder it is, the more pipes that burst.

The water mains fracture when groundwater freezes and expands, doubling the force on underground pipes from 400 to 800 pounds, exacerbating cracks and grinding at weak spots. The concept is known as "frost loading."

Cold has all sorts of side effects, causing houses to pop and creak when the wood, concrete and steel contract in freezing weather, making sounds — like boots crunching on snow — louder.

In extreme frost loading cases, like the water main break in Little Italy Friday, a main can explode and gush thousands of gallons of water onto nearby streets. More often though, the pipes sustain holes 1 to 2 inches wide and slowly leak water through the pavement.

The more dramatic type happens when an existing crack bursts from the pressure, while the more common break is usually caused when the ground weighs too heavy on a corroded spot in the iron.

Much of the problem lies in the fact that water lines in are made from cast iron, which can become brittle and susceptible to holes in the winter. The Water Department switched to a more flexible ductile iron about 1970.

It takes several days of extreme cold to cause breaks, according to Interim Water Commissioner Alex Margevicius. The number of breaks per day doubled by the end of last week, when wind chills dipped to -25. Monday-Wednesday, the department repaired four mains each day. Thursday-Monday, there were 10-13 breaks.

800: Pounds of force frozen ground puts on pipes1970: The year Water switched from cast iron to ductile iron13: Water main breaks on Thursday last week, up from four on Wednesday639: Breaks from Dec. 1-Jan. 8, 2014, during the cold snap190: Breaks from Dec. 1-Jan. 8 this year5,200: Miles of pipe in the water distribution system

Last winter was one of the worst on record for the water lines. From Dec. 1, 2013, to Jan. 8, 2014, 639 pipes ruptured. In the same time this winter, there were 190 breaks.

"2007 is the benchmark year for how bad it can get. We were totally inundated with water main breaks," Margevicius said. In February that year, there were 440 broken pipes; last February there were about 310.

To patch a typical rupture it takes a three-person crew about eight hours, Margevicius said. About 20 crews are stationed throughout the 5,200 miles of waterways in Greater Check out our story on water department workers in the winter.

In severe cases, gushing water washes away the backfilled dirt above the pipes, and pavement can buckle or even collapse, as it did in Little Italy, closing area streets. Those jobs can take more than a week to repair and happen about every two or three years, Margevicius said.

Residents connected to busted mains will sometimes have a weaker water pressure. For bad breaks, valves have to be turned off, which usually effects 40-50 customers, Margevicius said.

When water rushes rapidly from a punctured main, it can stir up some of the iron oxide that forms at the bottom of the channels and tint tap water a red-orange color.

To report a break, or for more information about when one is expected to be repaired, call the water emergency line at (216) 664-3060.

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