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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Capital's Water Chief Has High Hot Hopes




In the imagination, he works in a steam-filled room of hissing pipes, a giant wrench in his hand, and he spends his days in fiendish enjoyment, turning off monster-size valves, depriving Muscovites of hot water for weeks at a time.


In the real world, Mikhail Lapir works in an enormous but quiet office in the center of the city, a telephone in hand, and he spends his days in quiet regret, depriving Muscovites of hot water for weeks at a time.


"Of course, it would be much better if we could work faster," Lapir says philosophically, "but you cannot always live with a rainbow overhead."


Every summer, people across the country put up with the loss of hot water for up to a month, hostage to a vestige of the collective society f a central hot water system.


In Moscow, Lapir is in charge of the city's energy department, responsible for electricity, heat, street lights f and hot water.


The hot water is turned off every summer so that the steel pipes, which get rusty, can be examined and replaced if they are leaking. The water goes off and on district by district, usually starting at the beginning of May and ending in September.


Residents are notified by an announcement tacked up on the door of their building, a piece of paper that no matter how inevitable still strikes with the impact of a cold shower.


Moscow began building its heating and hot water system in 1924, Lapir says, and developed much of it in the 1950s. Most of the hot water comes from power stations producing electricity. Steam used to run the electricity-producing turbines is then shunted off to heat water. That water is piped throughout the city, heating radiators in winter and the water in kitchen and bathroom faucets. Some of that water travels as much as 35 kilometers between source and destination.


"The system is very efficient," he says. "The combination of hot water and electricity makes minimum use of energy. It makes it cheaper for us to produce."


At the same time, the system creates a maintenance nightmare. Moscow has about 16,000 kilometers of water pipes running underground, thousands and thousands of pieces of pipe ready to leak at any moment.


"First we check the pipes with high pressure," Lapir says. "If that goes successfully, thank God. But usually it doesn't. Then we have to find the weak spots, which is very difficult.


"It's a colossal amount of work. How many pipes? Too many for a calculator. It's probably four times to the moon and back," he says, joking.


"Every summer, 650 kilometers of pipe are replaced. It's an unbelievable amount of work, not only cutting off a piece of pipe and replacing it, but so much digging," Lapir says.


Cold water is delivered through an entirely different system, and when those pipes leak, sections can be shut off and repaired quickly. But the hot water comes through at temperatures up to the boiling point, requiring the whole section to be turned off and cooled before any work can be done.


Regulations require that the hot water in Moscow can be shut off for no more than 23 days. Someday, Lapir hopes to improve on that.


"I have a dream, and I don't know if it will come true," he says. "I dream that some day we won't have to switch it off for so long."


Lapir supervises a department of 250,000. His thorniest problem, however, is his neighbors. They think that because they have a big boss living in their building, they should have hot water all the time. Instead, the hot water in Lapir's building recently returned f after the maximum 23 days. Neighbors have a standard summertime greeting for him. "Hello. So, still no hot water?"


Lapir has stopped trying to explain the necessity of turning off the water. People don't want explanations when they long for a hot bath. "I know it's a cry from the soul," he says. "That's why I'm always trying to shorten the time."


Work has to be finished by mid-September for the beginning of the heating season.