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This week, Lancaster Watchdog examines both raised and sunken manholes and utility covers that have long peeved motorists.

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Manhole or Pothole?

Of all the complaints to Watchdog, there is one that transcends locale – since it’s on most roads, at some point, along the way in your commute.

Manholes (or utility covers).

These covers are, of course, essential to the smooth operation of our water and utility systems, allowing easier access to valves and resolving any issues quickly.

Manhole Lancaster Watchdog

This manhole on Harrisburg Avenue is one of many that drivers try to avoid around Lancaster County.

However, some of these covers are so far below the paved road, it almost seems like a safety hazard.

“Why are so many manhole and utility covers on city streets so far below grade(?)” one reader asks. “Some of these are worse than potholes,” they added. “Could these be paved over with a contrasting color of asphalt for quick and easy identification by work crews?”

In some circumstances, it does indeed seem like driving over a pothole.

Why does this happen?

“Due to snow plowing, we never want to leave utility valve covers high, as it will damage both the plows and the valves,” Lancaster city deputy public works director Matt Metzler tells Watchdog. “So the aim is to get the utility valve covers flush or slightly below flush with the roadway, and within a reasonable tolerance.”

Most manhole risers – extenders to get the valve near the top of the pavement – are available in half-inch increments from manufacturers, Metzler said, but some aren’t available in sizes under one inch, he said. That’s due to the strength of the valve risers to withstand heavy traffic.

Currently, the city gets manhole risers three-quarters-of-an-inch increments or larger.

"Unfortunately, utility construction and asphalt installation are not exact sciences and it’s not always possible to get it exactly flush,” he said, and sometimes that leads to the larger gaps.

For example, if a manhole valve is three-quarters-of-an-inch below the surface of the road, and the next available size is a one-inch adjustment, a riser would typically be left with the larger, lower gap, rather than having it a quarter-inch above and risking damage to both the valve and snow plows when winter hits.

Sometimes, there are several utilities covers in a relatively small stretch of road that require a paving contractor to blend in the different sizes and heights, though Metzler said it can be “nearly impossible to make all of them flush” without a major paving adjustment between utility lines.

Also, be mindful when swerving around manholes. Even in roads where passing is allowed, swerving could pose a safety risk to you and other cars on adjoining lanes.

Notice any problems?

Email the Lancaster Watchdog at or go to and tell us about it. You can also send mail to Lancaster Watchdog at P.O. Box 1328, Lancaster, PA 17608-1328.

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