From the River to the Tap: Pipe Repair

It’s hard to believe the clean, fresh water that comes from your tap actually started its journey as a drop of water in the Catawba River.


Hundreds of Charlotte Water employees are part of that journey, and during National Drinking Water Week, we celebrate and recognize the vital role water plays in our community. Every day this week, we’ll meet one of those employees helping deliver water from the river to your tap.


Today, we go in the trenches to learn what it takes to keep the water flowing across the entire system.

“Charlotte Water employees really care about getting water to houses and businesses. We have a good group of people here. Every time a customer is out of water, our crews give 100 percent to get the water back on.”

Labor Crew Chief 2 Garry Williams leads a six-man crew, all focused on fixing water and sewer main breaks. When investigators find a potential problem, or a customer calls in with a concern, Garry and his crew head out, traveling with their detective skills, years of knowledge and an array of heavy and light construction equipment.

Garry Williams pic

“Most of the time, when it comes to emergencies, customers call in to 311 and we respond,” Garry said. “It’s either water shooting up in the air or bubbling in the street, or sewage backing up.”

Garry joined Charlotte Water 15 years ago, serving as a crew lead before moving up to chief. He’s also a detective, working hard to find the source of a problem and fix it quickly, while impacting as few customers as possible.

“Once we get on the scene, we investigate everything. First, we have to turn the water off to see what we are dealing with,” he said. “We look through our map books and programs that show the locations of all the water mains and water valves.”

Garry tries to isolate issues to as small an area possible. “When we can target the problem and turn off the water there, we’ll impact fewer customers. If we can’t find the source of the leak, we have to back up to the next valve, then the next, and every time we do that, we’re putting more and more customers out of water.”

The labor crews have specialized equipment to target leaks. One is a listener, similar to a big stethoscope that medical professionals use to listen to your heart and lungs. “We may see water bubbling up in one location, but that doesn’t mean that’s where the leak is. We can lay a listener on the ground and use the sounds we hear to find out exactly where the break is. That way, we can dig just in that area.”

After finding the leak and turning the water off, crews use electric or gas pumps to drain the water from the hole. That gives them a better view of the pipe to determine their next steps.

While he’s investigating, listening and digging, Garry is also working with customers. “Most of the time, customers already know there’s an issue and they’re looking for our trucks. Once we pull up, it’s ‘Are y’all turning the water off?’ ‘Yes,’ and most of the time they’re pretty cool with it.”

Finding the problem is just the beginning. “Once we do the investigating, we then have to determine how many people will be affected, how long the water will be off. If it will be off for a long time, we can get water delivered to the area. If there’s a day care or school impacted, we talk to those customers and help them figure out what to do. We really want to work with them.”

Not all pipe breaks are small jobs. Last week, Charlotte Water dealt with an issue with a fitting on a 54-inch water main that closed lanes on East Morehead Street in Dilworth. “This one was different,” Garry explained. “Most of the time, the water finds a place to go – it flows onto the street or out of drains – but once we got to this one, you couldn’t see any water leaking. The asphalt had lifted up into a huge, water-filled bubble. Once we removed the asphalt, everything was washed out underneath.”

Breaks like that can make for long days. That break took three crews more than 36 hours to repair, due to the size of the pipe, the work removing the broken area and replacing it, and digging up and fixing East Morehead Street.

Garry knows the City and works hard every day. “It’s personal to me. I was born and raised in Charlotte; it’s my city. I try to do what I can to make it a better city.”

Despite the long days and hard work, he loves his job. “I respect every employee in Charlotte Water. It’s the best job I’ve ever had. I really love what I do.”

He knows he’s making a difference. “The best part of my job is helping each customer. We pull into a neighborhood and they may be out of water. We really do feel like heroes on some days. As soon as the truck pulls up, customers are waiting for us. I love to see the smiles on their faces and it’s always, ‘Thank you. We appreciate you.’ I just really love that part of the job.”

To read the next step in the water process click here