Cold baths a feature of Moscow summers

Hot water pipelines being upgraded as the ongoing replacement of Soviet-era network sees residents cut off for weeks at a time.

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MOSCOW // For the denizens of the Russian capital, summer is a time for lazy weekends outside the city, combing the forests for delectable mushrooms and grilling meat over an open fire. There is, however, a less tranquil aspect of life in the city as suggestive of summer as dozing at the dacha: cold showers.

Every summer, millions of Muscovites have their hot water switched off for weeks at a time while city repair crews replace hundreds of kilometres of the ageing Soviet-era pipeline network that delivers water to apartment buildings from heating stations throughout the city. This familiar rite of summer prompts many residents to seek refuge at sports clubs or the flats of friends and relatives, while others purchase electric boilers or heat up water on the stove. Some prefer simply to endure a frenetic scrub under cascading cold water.

Moscow City Hall says it has poured hundreds of millions of dollars into repairing the ageing pipeline network and has promised to reduce drastically the duration of the annual hot water suspension. But the economic situation in recent years has halted plans to upgrade the entire network within the next three years.  And so, Muscovites make do. On a Monday evening, Alexander Parkachev strolled out of his fitness club and into the cool summer night, freshly dressed after a spirited session of pick-up basketball. He is an inveterate hoops fanatic, but the gym is also the only place he can get a regular hot shower these days. His hot water had been switched off a week earlier, leaving him to hold out for one more week.

"In the worst-case scenario you can always boil the water in a big pot, add a little bit of cold water and splash it over yourself," Mr Parkachev, a financial analyst, said.  The hot water suspensions begin in early May and roll across the city until late August, affecting most districts for weeks at a time. Previously, most Moscow apartment buildings saw their hot water turned off for three weeks every summer, though the interval has been shortened to a maximum of two weeks, said Oksana Druzhinina, a spokeswoman for Moscow United Energy Co, which oversees the repair work.

Centralised planning remains firmly in place in many aspects of residential life in Moscow and other Russian regions. Hot water is no exception. Most of Moscow's hot water is not drawn from on-site boilers but rather piped to apartment buildings from large water plants stationed throughout the city.  Moscow United Energy Co services abut 10,500 kilometres of pipeline delivering this water, 35 per cent of which has already been outfitted with more modern, durable pipes, Ms Druzhinina said. Two years ago, Moscow City Hall announced plans to replace the entire network by 2013, but they were shelved after the global financial crisis hit Russia in late 2008, she said.

The company is currently replacing about 260km of pipeline every year, Ms Druzhinina said. The sluggish pace of repairs on the pipeline network is not bad for everyone, however. Two of the country's largest home appliance retail chains said their Moscow stores see a spike in the sale of water heaters during the summer months. At the peak of the water switch-off in June, water heater sales are typically up 50 per cent at the Moscow stores of electronics and home appliances retailer M.Video, a company spokeswoman, Nadezhda Kiselyova, said.

Another leading retailer, Eldorado, said its service centre installed 650 water heaters in May, up from 349 in April and 95 in May. The company expects to install up to 1,000 during the peak of the hot water suspension, said Dmitry Pomogayev, a company spokesman. The pipeline replacements are not limited to Moscow. They are carried out in cities and towns across Russia as well. In a nationwide poll conducted last month by the website, 45 per cent of respondents said they adapt by simply heating water on the stove, while 20 per cent said they had purchased water heaters in anticipation of the cold water. Nine per cent said they visit friends' or relatives' apartments to wash, while another nine per cent said they just take cold showers. Six per cent go to either a sports club or a sauna, according to the poll, which surveyed 1,800 respondents.

Mikhail Nelkin, 26, had been playing basketball with Mr Parkachev that Monday evening at the sports club in northern Moscow. Unlike his friend, Mr Nelkin, an IT specialist, still has hot water at home. He does not know when his will be switched off but says he will head over to his parents' apartment - a 30-minute drive - when it is. "They have a gas heater," he said. "The hot water is never shut off there."

Mr Nelkin said he will probably buy a water heater when he finally renovates his apartment, but he is in no hurry. "It's not a big hassle. In Europe they maybe shut off the water for one night. For us it's just a tradition to do it for two weeks." Mr Parkachev concurred: "Anyone can hold out for two weeks."