Russians Fight A Cold War With Faucets


In the late-night twilight of a warm Russian summer, in an ordinary third-floor apartment at No. 6 Kalashny Lane, a gentle burbling from other rooms tickles the ear.

The water is running.

In the kitchen sink, in the bathroom sink, in the toilet tank.

Like a babbling brook in the bathroom, a chattering kitchen creek, or the still-sputtering edge of a tin dacha roof after an afternoon rain, these faucets do not merely emit a stubborn drip. They run in a steady stream that laps cheerfully down the drains.

Glasnost, perestroika - much has changed here. But Russians still live with plumbing that is patently Soviet. Moscow officials estimate 21 percent of the city's water dribbles away as leakage.

Most of that leakage comes from faucets and toilet valves that will not turn off.

One small consolation at No. 6 Kalashny Lane: For the moment, none of the many gallons of water wasted every hour are hot.

As in most neighborhoods in Moscow and other major Russian cities, the hot water here is turned off for at least three weeks every year between May and August for maintenance of pipes. The hot water on Kalashny Lane went off at the beginning of July, for example, and will not return before July 20.

Bracing for the shower

So for a few weeks every summer Russians adopt other measures. Some simply take a deep breath and take their showers cold. Some drop in on friends or relatives in neighboring districts that have hot water. Most develop a routine for heating water on the stove and carrying it to the bathtub.

The reason for all this pipe maintenance is that hot water in Russia does not merely run through the house - Western-style - from a basement or closet water heater. The communists heated for the masses. So most of the hot water in Moscow, a city of between 9 million and 15 million people, comes either from one of 15 massive power plants - called TETSes - or 30 smaller boilers. Some water heated in TETS No. 21 travels nearly five miles before it reaches a spigot.

Much heat is lost in transit from poorly insulated pipes between the towering cement boilers of the TETSes and the showerheads of Muscovites, according to Boris Medvedev, first deputy chief of Power Supply and Conservation for the city of Moscow. More heat is lost from hot water that drips from leaky faucets.

Mr. Medvedev attributes Moscow's dripping sinks and running toilets to both a "political problem" and a "technical problem." The political problem is that Russians are used to subsidized water and heat. Even if meters measured household water usage, as they do in the West, few politicians would be thick-skinned enough to levy water bills on pensioners. Although the city has installed about 2,000 water meters in the past two years, most Moscow households do not pay for their water.

Forget about meters

Leakage has become an increasing concern among officials, Medvedev says. But only the very newest buildings have meters and thermostats. Most of the rest are neither measured nor controlled for waste of heat or water.

In one neighborhood of northern Moscow, the city is installing for free a new kind of faucet with long-lasting ceramic washers as an experiment to see if it can save water. Even if it works, however, the city has little money to install more of the faucets and Muscovites have little incentive to buy them themselves.

Both the political and technical problems of wasteful, Soviet-era plumbing are fast becoming financial problems, Medvedev says. The city can little afford to make the system into a more efficient one.

Muscovites manage. At No. 6 Kalashny Lane, the burble from the toilet tank is dampened by turning the water supply nearly off between flushes. And come October, when the heat for the entire city is turned on at the TETSes for the winter, overcooked Muscovites will do the sensible thing.

Open the windows.

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