Water line freeze-ups epidemic
Marshall Helmberger

REGIONAL—After two and a half months of almost unbroken sub-zero temperatures, residents of the North Country are struggling to keep their indoor water flowing.

“It’s absolutely crazy right now,” said Dan Rogers, of Northern Minnesota Services, an Eveleth company that thaws frozen pipes. “It was bad in 2003, but this is the worst I’ve ever seen in 30 years.”

While most water lines in the region are buried seven feet deep or more, months of relentless cold have pushed the frost eight feet or more into the ground in some cases, at least under plowed streets and driveways.

Frost penetration this year appears to be unprecedented, at least since records have been kept. The Minnesota Department of Transportation maintains frost sensors at locations around the state, including one at Orr. As of Wednesday, the sensor showed the frost penetration down to seven-feet, one-inch, the deepest in memory.

Even in the winter of 2003-2004, when half of the septic systems in St. Louis County froze up, the frost penetrated no more than six feet, according to the Orr sensor.

“We have everyone in town running water,” said Orr City Clerk Louise Redmond. The city has already seen a number of water lines freeze, and there are still weeks of winter remaining. “We have no idea what’s going to happen,” said Redmond. “Historically, we’ve just never seen this.”

The problems are widespread, according to Rogers, who now has four crews operating around the clock, seven days a week, just to keep up with the calls. This week, he said he had a backlog of 40 calls and more coming in every day. “I’m going all the way from Orr to Hoyt Lakes and everything in between,” he said.

And once frozen, there is no guarantee that the lines can be re-opened, although most do thaw eventually. Rogers, and others who are now offering the service are using electric arc welders to run current through the copper water lines, which heats them up enough to thaw the ice. But on one residential water line in the Midway district of Virginia this week, Rogers applied current for 24 straight hours, without success. He said the single resident of the home told him he planned to move in with a sister for the remainder of the winter.

In Soudan, where dozens of homes have seen water line freeze-ups in the past few weeks, life has gotten complicated for many. Sara Baird, a teacher at the new charter school in Tower, has seen the water at her family’s home in Soudan freeze up twice this winter. “And we were running quite a bit of water. Now we have a faucet and a toilet running.”

The freeze-ups have proved a major inconvenience, said Baird. “We have two teenagers who have been experiencing a new way of life.”

The growing number of freeze-ups has prompted a mini-boom, of sorts, in the number of local entrepreneurs who are starting to offer thawing services.

Bernie Zollar, a plumber from Soudan, is now thawing lines and he’s been running steadily since picking up a new welder unit earlier this week. He can be reached at 753-2264.

Since Zollar is a licensed and bonded plumber, he’s got all the necessary insurance, and that’s something that is important for homeowners to consider, since the welders, if not set up properly, can damage a home’s electrical system.

Rogers said he doesn’t mind a little competition, at least not this winter, since he’s so backed up with work right now. “We just can’t get to everybody,” he said.

From the sound of it, the work won’t end any time soon. “I’ve had seven calls already this morning,” said Zollar, on Wednesday.

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