As subzero days drag on, water lines freezing across Minnesota

  • Article by: NICOLE NORFLEET , Star Tribune
  • Updated: February 27, 2014 - 2:52 PM

Freezing temperatures are damaging older pipes as cities struggle to help residents, some of whom are using buckets of water for daily use.

Every day this week, Molly Aichele and her family have lugged five-gallon buckets of water from a neighbor’s home and stocked up on bottled water so they can wash their hair, brush their teeth and flush their toilet.

The Aicheles are one of three families on their Roseville block whose water pipes have frozen as this bitter winter wears on.

In the metro area and around the state, officials are reporting “a high number of frozen pipes,” according to Craig Johnson of the League of Minnesota Cities.

Large pipes maintained by cities, many of them decades old, are freezing, some of them cracking and bursting, as the result of the frost line burrowing deeper this year, and homeowners are having the same problem with the smaller lines that run from curbsides into their homes. It’s not a problem likely to go away soon, with frigid days forecast for well into next week.

Aichele, 52, who has been sick and stuck at her waterless home this week, has had to be creative, getting by with bottled water and borrowed buckets. Her family is using disposable utensils and plates to avoid washing dishes. Hand sanitizer is used in lieu of hand-washing. And Aichele boils water and mixes it with cold water to use in the shower.

“It’s kind of gross,” she said. “It’s weird — who ever thought about not having water?”

One of her daughters discovered the water wasn’t working Sunday. On Wednesday, city workers tried to use a hot-water system to thaw the line, but it didn’t work. So the family will have to hire a contractor to help with the fix, which Aichele guesses won’t come cheap.

In Roseville, service lines from water mains to homes have been the most troublesome this season, said Marc Culver, assistant public works director and city engineer. About 55 service lines have frozen in the city this winter, more than 20 of which were not thawed as of Wednesday morning.

“And it’s getting worse. … We’ve never seen it to this magnitude,” Culver said.

A lot of the freezing is happening in areas under streets, driveways or sidewalks, where frost can penetrate deep without the insulation provided by snow.

The city has dispatched public works crews to try to thaw lines using a system that distributes pressurized hot water, but that works only 50 percent or less of the time, Culver said. If that fails, residents have to turn to private contractors.

To try to prevent costly repairs, Culver, along with public works officials in other cities are trying to spread the word to residents that they should test the temperature of their cold water to indicate if their pipes could be in danger of freezing.

If the water is below 35 degrees (some cities say 40), residents are advised to keep a faucet running at a trickle the size of the lead of a pencil. The flow helps prevent freezing. Culver said it may cost an extra $10 or so a month to run the water, but it’s worth it.

On Monday, the severity of the problem led the Roseville City Council to approve a credit to help residents with water bills when they’ve been advised to keep their water running.

With so many pipes being impacted, it’s taking Roseville public work crews several days to get out to calls, Culver said. Private contractors, too, are overstretched. “The unfortunate thing about this is that the problem is so widespread across the state of Minnesota right now that the contractors are really busy,” he said.

A widespread problem

Among the many other metro-area communities where frozen pipes have been reported are Eagan, Bloomington, Richfield, New Hope, Plymouth and Anoka.

And the pipe crisis extends well beyond the metro area. Many outstate cities, from Brainerd to Redwood Falls to Red Wing, are urging residents to check their faucet-water temperatures and to leave water trickling.

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