Risk to pipes will not ease with this week's milder weather

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Marcia Nelesen
Monday, February 17, 2014

JANESVILLE--Big whoop.

The “Big Thaw” is coming? You think you're out of the woods because your water service pipes haven't frozen?

Think again.

This week's predicted "warm” snap won't touch the frost in the ground, especially if the area continues to see night temperatures in single or negative numbers, said Craig Thiesenhusen, Janesville's water superintendent.

“What has to happen is a lot of really warm days,” Thiesenhusen said.

“I'm being told to look to the end of March.”

The water utility continues to get five to 10 calls a day from residents with frozen service lines. Those are the smaller pipes that run from the water mains to homes.

That makes about 100 properties so far with frozen pipes, Thiesenhusen said.

“We're having new freeze-ups everyday,” he said. “We're talking constantly about what we can do.”

Some pipes are freezing for the second time after utility crews thaw the pipes using electric currents.

Truth is, nobody knows what is happening or what will happen with water services all over the state, Thiesenhusen said.

“This is uncharted territory for everybody.”

Jeff Peterson, director of Brodhead Water & Light, told council members the situation is “as close to a physical emergency we've ever had.”

Brodhead has had about 60 freeze-ups so far. The utility is asking customers to run water for five minutes in the morning and at night. Water that is at about 35 degrees—you can take the temperature with a meat thermometer—is a sign that it is close to freezing.

Thiesenhusen said Janesville has areas where the frost depth is 60 inches—well past where service pipes are buried. Service pipes are usually about 4 or 5 feet deep to avoid normal frost depths.

The situation might get worse before it gets better: A news release from Brodhead Water & Light and other online sources indicate frost initially pushes deeper as the weather warms.

Janesville workers initially thought running a continuous pencil-sized stream of water through a faucet would stop service pipes from refreezing, Thiesenhusen said.

But three to four resident have had their pipes freeze even as they were running water.

Now, the utility is telling those customers to run larger streams in more than one faucet.

Sometimes, workers think they see a pattern where pipes are especially at risk, such as leading to homes in cul-de-sacs and dead ends. The water mains dead end, and workers theorize the water is colder because it doesn't move as fast. Workers are finding water temps in those mains at 33 or 34 degrees, Thiesenhusen said.

But just when workers think they've found a pattern, they'll get a call from someone located on a major street, he said.

Other variables could come into play, such as the amount of water a household uses, a location over a storm sewer or even the type of soil in which the pipes are buried.

 “There are so many unknowns as to why they might be freezing,” Thiesenhusen said.

“We're just doing our best to keep up. This crew has been outstanding.

“A lot of them have worked without a day off since the beginning of January. The guys are working sometimes 18, 21 hours a day.

“We're killing ourselves, doing our best to get people water as soon as possible.”

The utility isn't even thinking yet of figuring out the cost of the overtime hours.

Residents, for the most part, have been appreciative, he said.

The worst, however, might be coming.

From experience, crews know water mains typically break as temperatures increase and the ground heaves. Whether this will be a record-breaking year for breaks is anybody's guess, Thiesenhusen said.

“You don't know what's coming next,” Thiesenhusen said.


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