The Free Press, Mankato, MN

March 2, 2014

Cities considering giving credit on water bills

Frozen pipes causing household financial woes

By Dan Linehan

---- — When John and Mary Lowrie of North Mankato arose on Feb. 4, water came out of their shower nozzles and their faucets on command.

By the time they came home from work, their underground pipes were frozen solid.

They eventually got their water back after four expensive days of plumbers and a failed attempt to thaw their pipes with electricity.

On Feb. 18, they asked the North Mankato City Council for a little break — not on their plumbing costs but on their water costs. To avoid another freeze-up, they are running a basement sink at all hours, draining about 250 gallons a day.

North Mankato has drafted an ordinance to help the more than a dozen homes and businesses that have dealt with the problem so far this winter. Today the City Council will decide whether to set a March 17 public hearing to consider the water usage credit.

They’re not alone — some cities are saying this is the worst winter for water pipes in memory.

“I’ve worked here since the early '80s and I’ve never run into this,” said Patti Woodruff, city administrator in Mapleton. The city has had five freeze-ups in recent weeks.

In those cases, the city is paying for repairs because the freeze-ups have been on the city-owned portion of the pipes. So far, they haven’t had to go to the expense of digging down to the pipes. Several area companies offer so-called “jetting” services, whereby a hose is snaked through the pipes and hot water is shot through the nozzle.

Mark Wenisch works at Affordable Jetting, the company that thawed the Lowries’ pipes. He said business is brisk, and all types of underground pipes are freezing, including septic lines.

“The frost is down so deep it’s caused a lot of things to freeze that have never frozen before,” he said.

John Lowrie said another house near his hilltop home had frozen pipes, though Wenisch said there are no particular areas of the city or region that appear particularly susceptible.

Wenisch recommends that people run their water cold, then take its temperature. If it’s below 40 degrees, your pipes are likely surrounded by frost and you should consider leaving your water on.

In the Lowries’ case, they were responsible financially for the work because the frozen pipes were on their side.

Like other cities, Mapleton is weighing the cost of fixing the freezes against the price of treating water that goes straight down the drain.

The city has agreed to let residents run their water without paying extra, but only if they call City Hall first. About 10 homes are doing that so far. The city will charge those homes for their costs a year ago.

North Mankato’s proposed ordinance would credit residents for up to 300 gallons a day, but only if the customer has receipts to show that work was done on the line. And a home or business can only get the credit for two consecutive winters.

The city of Le Center took a somewhat more drastic step. On Feb. 14 it asked all of its 2,500 or so residents to run their water at all times.

“We haven’t had any more frozen pipes, knock on wood,” City Administrator Chris Collins said.

He said residents will likely be running their water at least through the end of March.

A rural water service in southwest Minnesota, called Lincoln Pipestone Rural Water, told Minnesota Public Radio is was experiencing a “phenomenal” problem with freeze-ups.

“People that have been here for a long time are telling me that they’ve never experienced this before,” Mark Johnson, the service’s chief executive, told MPR.

In general, higher-volume city water mains do not freeze because water is constantly running through them. Rivers freeze slower than lakes.

But the frost can still shift the ground around city water mains, and the differential pressure along different areas of pipes can cause breaks.