Buried water pipes at risk from extreme cold and deep frost

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Marcia Nelesen
Thursday, February 6, 2014

JANESVILLE--The extended, bitter cold is pushing the ground frost so deep it is freezing the water in buried pipes that connect Janesville homes to water mains under streets.

One Janesville resident returned Saturday from an eight-day holiday to be greeted with a trickle of water from his faucets and then nothing at all. Water department workers determined the water had frozen somewhere on its way from the main to his home.

Have you noticed your cold tap water is really, really cold? That's because the pipes buried outdoors are really, really cold.

The 16 workers in the Janesville Water Department this season have been dealing with a record number of water main breaks, about 48 so far, said Dave Botts, utility director.

“But now we're getting all these freeze-ups,” Botts said. “We have to have guys out dealing with that.”

Workers are on call 24/7, and there have been only a couple of days since the end of December when crews haven't been called in, Botts said.

There won't be any letup for at least the next 10 days. More low temperatures below zero are predicted, and highs are not expected to climb above freezing.

Normally, the water department will get one or two calls a season concerning a service pipe freezing, and those usually are in crawl spaces or basements, Botts said.

“Not in the ground like we are seeing,” Botts said.

If the pipe is frozen between the stop box—which usually is located at the property line—and the home, it is the property owner's responsibility. If the water is frozen from the stop box to the water main under the street, it's the city's responsibility.

The department in recent weeks has responded to about 60 private line freezes and 15 to 20 freezes on the city side.

The state Public Service Commission requires the city pay for the first service call to thaw a private line freeze. The second is on the homeowner's dime, Botts said.

“That's because we explained what the resident can do to prevent it from happening, and our expectations are that you'd continue to do that,” he said.

Cost is about $200 to $300 to thaw a pipe, depending on conditions and if the city contracts with a private service, Botts said.

The city is working with a welder who sends an electric current through pipes to thaw the water. That takes about an hour, if everything works right, Botts said.

Water crews are calling homeowners who live near properties where water lines have frozen, advising them their pipes might be susceptible, too. The depth of pipes can vary because of soil conditions and other variables.

“They're just being proactive in trying to make sure someone else's doesn't freeze up,” he said.

Homeowners can help keep their pipes open by letting a trickle of water run to keep water moving through laterals, especially overnight. Residents also should run water for five minutes at least twice a day.

People can check if they have a potential problem by taking the temperature of water coming from the cold water tap.

“If you're experiencing water that's about 34 degrees, there's a potential problem there,” Botts said.

Residents should keep their basements warm so meters don't freeze.

“Until we get above freezing, that frost is not going anywhere,” Botts said. “If it stays cold like it has been, it's just going to continue to push deeper.”

Just how deep is the frost?

Botts said workers have found frost 60 inches deep in some places.

Brian Hahn, service hydrologist for the National Weather Service station in Sullivan, said frost goes two to four feet deep in an average winter.

The deepest frost usually is found under pavement, which is kept clear of insulating snow.

Hahn isn't holding out much hope that things will improve anytime soon. No above-freezing temperatures are predicted for at least seven days.

“I suspect that frost is going to be going a little bit deeper yet,” he said.

The outlook for the next eight to 14 days calls for more below-normal temperatures, as well.

“For the whole month of February, the odds are favoring below-normal temperatures,” Hahn said. “Right now, I can't point to any warming trend.”

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