Page last updated at 20:26 GMT, Tuesday, 12 January 2010

Pothole and frozen pipe worries as 'big freeze' thaws

Highways Manager Andrew Warrington describes the problem in Leicestershire

Local authorities, employers and homeowners are counting the cost of Britain's "big freeze" in the form of repairs to potholes and cracked pipes.

The cycle of freezing and thawing water will widen cracks in road surfaces, creating potholes, warns the Institution of Civil Engineers.

Northamptonshire County Council wants £5m to fix weather-damaged roads.

Meanwhile, plumbers and utilities firms have taken thousands of calls about leaks from frozen pipes.

Throughout the cold snap, much of the public's attention has been focused on a shortage of salt for gritting treacherous roads.

But Institution of Civil Engineers vice-president Geoff French said the thaw could bring little respite, with drivers having to cope with increasing numbers of potholes.

The continuous cycle of freezing and thawing - particularly on roads where long-term maintenance had been neglected - could break up road surfaces, he said.

How potholes are formed

raindrops on road surface
As tarmac ages, it gets more porous. Rainwater penetrates cracks caused by constant traffic use.
ice symbols on cracked road surface
When water freezes it expands. More cracks form and the tarmac is pushed outwards like a bubble.
hole created in road surface
The ice thaws creating voids, or gaps, under the surface. These get larger with each freeze-thaw cycle.
tyre above hole in road surface
Traffic causes tarmac to collapse and form a pothole which gets larger as more traffic rolls over it.
BACK {current} of {total} NEXT

"Water gets into cracks in the road surface, it then freezes and expands the crack. Then more water gets in, it freezes because of the weather cycle we're in and it steadily gets worse," he said.

Despite talk of thawing, many parts of the UK continue to experience snowfall and are braced for more disruption.

A fresh band of heavy snow is moving across west and south Wales as councils battle to get enough grit to make roads safe for traffic and pedestrians.

Heavy snow fell on parts of Devon on Tuesday afternoon, causing widespread travel problems. Flights were cancelled at Plymouth Airport.

Meanwhile, the deadline for UK university applications has been extended by a week because of the adverse weather.

Buckinghamshire council is deploying six extra road repair teams a day - on top of its usual nine - at a cost of £18,000 per week for at least three weeks.

It will have been a costly time for homes and businesses - with unexpected costs, often at emergency call-out rates
Clive Dickin, Association of Plumbing and Heating Contractors

In Leicestershire, road managers expect this year's bill to be up on the usual £300,000.

In April, the Asphalt Industry Alliance said in a report there was a pothole for every 120 yards of road in England and Wales and that it would take 13 years to clear the backlog of repairs.

Prof Stephen Glaister, director of the RAC Foundation, said: "Potholes are not just about inconvenience. They damage vehicles and cause accidents. It is wrong to think doing nothing is the easy option.

"In previous years councils have spent almost as much money dealing with compensation claims as fixing the problem."

The Local Government Association, which represents councils in England and Wales, calculates its members spent more than £60m filling in around 970,000 potholes last year.

Its transport board chairman David Sparks said: "The latest cold weather means they are working flat out to fill in the ones created during the last month of freezing weather."

'Patched up'

Paul Butcher, whose firm Instarmac supplied one million kits containing pothole-filling material to road repair teams last year, said he expected sales to double or even triple.

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After last February's two-week cold snap, there was a 40% increase in road damage, according to the AA.

It pushed the number of potholes up to 1.5m - and the number of insurance claims it received almost trebled from 700 the February before to 2,000 as a result, it said.

AA head of roads policy Paul Watters said it would be "much worse" because of cold weather which had been more widespread this winter.

He said councils were too focused on "patching up" road surfaces, rather than rebuilding highways to correct structural faults.

"As a result, in cold spells, whole lengths of road can sag, expand, break up or start to undulate," Mr Watters added.

Many roads may have to be dug up as water firms get to grips with leaks in the wake of the Arctic conditions.

Workers lay grit after a burst water main flooded an icy road in Bristol
Freezing conditions forced water firms to carry out emergency repairs

Water supplier United Utilities is taking more than 7,200 calls per day from its customers in north-west England - 10 times more than the winter average.

The main complaint has been frozen pipes leading to homes, although the firm also wants customers to report low water pressure - often an indication of a leak caused by a mains pipe joint cracking as ice thaws.

About 15,000 of its customers in south Warrington are receiving water from boreholes as engineers try to plug underground leaks.

Yorkshire Water has been handling about 150 calls a day - four times the norm - and Southern Water reported 73 leaks across Hampshire, Sussex and Kent in the first week of the new year.

Association of Plumbing and Heating Contractors chief executive Clive Dickin said its members have been busy.

"It will have been a costly time for homes and businesses... with unexpected costs, often at emergency call-out rates," he said.

"Most of the work, however, should be covered by insurance."

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