PITTSBURGH – A small team of mechanics and lock operators replaced 740 feet of hydraulic steel piping, avoiding a six-figure cost in taxpayer dollars to keep navigation moving on the Allegheny River.
The project took the better part of a year and more than 800 work hours to complete, performed mostly by two mechanics.
“Failure was not an option,” said Robert Nuss, one of the two equipment mechanics in charge of the project at C.W. Bill Young Lock & Dam.
Despite its name, the lock is anything but young. The concrete walls are crumbling, and the hydraulic system faced potential rupture and fluid leak if Nuss and his team had not taken quick action. None of them had ever handled a job this big, so they approached the work with an emphasis on planning.
“If we didn’t take planning seriously, it could be like opening up Pandora’s Box,” Nuss said.
If the installation went awry, it would mean shutting down navigation at the facility, also known as Lock and Dam 3, located 17 miles upstream from the point of Pittsburgh. Unlike many larger locking facilities, Lock 3 has only one chamber. As a result, the team didn’t have the luxury of keeping traffic moving through a second passage while they shut down for maintenance.
The hydraulic system opens and closes the miter gates. Removing even a single piece of the pipe means cutting off the flow of hydraulic fluid, rendering the system useless.
“We pride ourselves in the fact we never shut down the facility to commercial traffic,” Dernus said.
To avoid shutdown, the mechanics constructed a bypass “soft” line to keep hundreds of gallons of hydraulic fluid in operation.
Usually, a job of this scale would have warranted an outside contract or a request to the maintenance fleet. Not only would that have been more costly, but it would have taken months to fund, market and approve a bid before work began. Nuss did not think the hydraulic system would last the wait.
“My concern was the system would inevitably fail before a contractor would be able to come in and repair it,” Nuss said.
Before tackling the project, Nuss and fellow mechanic, Gary Dernus, thought only a few pipes would need replacing while they rehabbed the rest. However, when they inspected the system, they discovered most pipes were too corroded to scrape the rust off and repaint them.
“We saw different generations of piping, some all the way back to the 1930s,” Nuss said.
The lock and dam first went into operation in late 1934, with some piping and fittings dating back to the lock’s original construction. The fittings were made of heavy cast iron, which were still intact and usable. Other parts and pipes were more recent, but it was impossible to tell from which decade.
Removing and replacing the piping was like a journey back in history, Nuss said. But although it was interesting to go back in time, the labor itself was intensive.
It required Nuss, Dernus, and everyone who helped to thread heavy 20-foot pipes through a human-sized hole into a narrow concrete tunnel called a gallery. Each pipe weighed more than 200 pounds. They moved the same pipes up and down from the gallery multiple times, first to dry-fit them below, then to prep and weld parts of the pipes above ground, apply the protective coating, then lowered them again for installation.
“It was definitely not an easy task. Honestly, at first, it was pretty daunting,” Dernus said.
Completing the project was like assembling a massive puzzle, except without any diagrams or instructions to follow. So instead, Nuss and Dernus wrote down their own plans, often modifying the design to overcome obstacles along the way. Nuss said he is thankful for the guidance and advice he received from his peers.
“After this experience, I feel a lot more confident now going to any facility and being able to troubleshoot and rebuild their hydraulic system if I had to,” Dernus said.
Working inside the gallery didn’t make the installation any easier. The tunnel is like a concrete cavern. The space is narrow, barely wide enough for a person to walk through without accidentally smacking their shoulders into something. Unfortunately, it is also hundreds of feet long, and there was only one entry point for each pipe.
“Yeah, it wasn’t pleasant. The first day the pipe was delivered, we joked about how awful it was going to be. And then we never spoke about it again because it wouldn’t help,” Nuss said.
Saving money on the project was critical due to the lack of funding on the Allegheny River for navigation. Locking facilities receive much of their funding from the shipping industries that use them. However, the Allegheny River is mostly used by recreation boats, which don’t pay any fees to use locks. Funding on the Allegheny is limited to a small portion of tax revenue, unlike the Monongahela and Ohio rivers, which receive more funding from industry traffic.
To save additional costs, Nuss coordinated with other lock facilities in the region that had hydraulic pipes and materials not being used. Those pipes were used but still in good enough shape to refurbish.
Walking down into the gallery now is a different experience from a year ago. Before the project, the tunnel had hundreds of feet of rusted and deteriorating piping. Now the pipes are either new or refurbished, freshly painted, bright white, and expected to last several decades.
“I have a tremendous amount of pride and a sense of accomplishment in finishing the work,” said Gary Dernus. “I really enjoyed the experience I got out of it because hydraulics is the heart and soul of these facilities. You’re not going to get that on-the-job training experience anywhere else.”