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Northern towns join New London and Spicer in a running water defense

By John Myers

Forum News Service

Residents in Ely, Hibbing, Bemidji, parts of Virginia and several other northern Minnesota communities are being asked to keep a cold water faucet running for the rest of the winter to prevent incoming water lines from freezing.

Farther south, residents of some central Minnesota towns, such as a New London and Spicer, have had to leave faucets running this winter this month as well.

The unusually widespread problem has hit, not surprisingly, as the region broke a record for most days below zero in one winter, and municipal water service lines are starting to show signs of trouble from the cold.

Frozen water lines running into homes add to the already growing problem of broken water mains that crack as the cold sinks into the ground. The deepening frost can cause shifting and snap some pipes or simply freeze others solid.

Cities don’t have enough public works crews to get to homes fast enough as they freeze, making it easier to ask residents to keep the water running to prevent the problem from happening. Private companies also have been kept running responding to homeowners or helping cities cope.

New London and Spicer have asked residents since February 11 to keep water running in their homes until further notice to prevent frozen pipes.

"We need residents to keep a constant stream of water running about the size of a pencil," said Trudie Guptill, New London city administrator, said this morning. "All water bills will be adjusted to reflect normal usage."

Ely city officials on Monday asked residents to check the temperature of their incoming cold water. If it is 37 degrees or colder, or for homeowners and businesses that had frozen lines in the past, they urged residents to keep water running at a steady stream.

The general rule of thumb is to keep a quarter-inch stream flowing out of a main faucet — about the size of a pencil. The moving water usually prevents freeze up entering the home.

Hibbing on Friday went to its first citywide request to keep taps on because the problem is so widespread.

“We’ve never seen anything like this before. We’ve already thawed or are thawing 94 services this winter. A normal winter is 15 or 20. And we are still getting more every day,” said Corey Lubovich, director of utility operations manager in Hibbing.

It’s not always an easy task thawing pipes underground, often requiring running electricity through the pipe to heat them.

On Monday, there were still 33 Hibbing residents on the list to have pipes thawed, Lubovich noted. It may take several days to get to all of them. Some people have had to call the city multiple times for lines that refroze after being thawed.

“We’re just asking everyone in town to do this (run water) to be pro-active. We have our one city crew and three contract crews working 12-hour days and it’s hard to keep up,” he said. “We’re trying to get ahead of this runaway train of a problem. It’s a very expensive proposition to thaw these one by one.”

So far, the city of Hibbing is footing the bill, at least for the first call. Ely is charging a minimum of $100 for a thaw to a private line. Washburn has warned that residents who don’t leave water running will have to pay for the thaw out of their own pockets.

Howard Jacobson, Duluth’s water and gas supply manager, said the best sink to leave running is one that doesn’t get used much, such as a laundry tub. When you get the small stream going, Jacobson suggests removing the cap from the faucet so no one will accidentally turn it off.

Utility officials said faucets may have to run continually until late March — or whenever the ground thaws.

In Duluth, Jacobson said several residents are experiencing frozen water lines, as happens each winter. But a huge dollop of snow in December helped insulate the ground around houses in the Duluth and North Shore areas. Even with 60-plus days this winter with below-zero temperatures, the most in recorded history, snow can still act as a blanket.

“We do have our share of frozen services. But I think that early snowfall helped. We’ve dug into some yards this winter and the frost is only down a foot or two,” Jacobson said.

That compares to frost reaching 6 feet down and deeper in the Hibbing area near homes, and 6 feet down in Duluth where roads have been plowed, allowing the cold to penetrate and cause havoc to pipes below.

A rare warm-up on the way this week, with temperatures above freezing, may slow the problem briefly. But it also will cause the ground to rapidly shift, spurring more water line breaks where the frost has crept into the ground, Jacobson said.

Duluth has seen 60 days this winter when the temperature dropped below zero, breaking the old record of 59.

Reporter Gretchen Schlosser contributed to this article.

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