Bitter, cold winter taking toll on municipal water systems
By NIKKI YOUNK
IRON MOUNTAIN – Constant frigid temperatures this winter have led to more frozen water pipes than local officials have seen in 20 years.
Cold weather began back in December, which the National Weather Service in Marquette cited as the eighth-coldest December on record.
The new year hasn’t fared much better.
Information from the Iron Mountain-Kingsford Wastewater Treatment Plant indicated that only three days in mid-January had high temperatures above the freezing point. High temperatures on Jan. 6, 7, and 27 did not even reach above zero degrees.
Bitter cold temperatures have driven the frost underground to new depths. Depths at which it can cause water pipes to freeze.
The last time local city managers and department of public works superintendents can remember so many water pipes freezing was the winter of 1994.
“That was the benchmark year for freeze-ups,” said Kingsford City Manager Tony Edlebeck, who served for many years as the city’s Department of Public Works superintendent.
Some communities have already surpassed 1994’s numbers.
“We haven’t even been close to this in the past,” said Norway City Manager Ray Anderson. “It’s totally off the books.”
Iron Mountain City Manager Jordan Stanchina agreed.
“This is way beyond anything we’ve experienced,” he said. “We’re getting calls every day.”
Iron Mountain has had more than 100 water customers report frozen pipes, Kingsford has had about 30, Norway has had more than 200, Breitung Township has had about 30, and Iron River has had more than 50.
In addition, Norway has had two water mains freeze: one on the 500 block of Iron Street and one on the 200 block of Norway Street. Anderson emphasized that these were areas that the city had already targeted for water/sewer upgrades.
Responsibility for treating frozen pipes varies by community. Some municipalities will treat all underground pipes, while some will only treat problems up to the property line. Generally, all frozen pipes within a home are the responsibility of the homeowner.
One method that municipal workers use to thaw a frozen pipe involves creating an electric circuit with a welder. Of course, this technique only works with metal pipes.
Breitung Township Department of Public Works Superintendent Guy Forstrom warned that using electricity to thaw pipes can be dangerous, and should only be attempted by those with experience.
Officials reported that the freezes in their communities are, for the most part, spread out randomly. Factors like pipe depth, which vary even within a municipality, and snow cover can influence whether or not a pipe will freeze.
Forstrom explained that snow acts as an insulator.
“Under snow, the frost could be only three feet deep, while in plowed areas like roads or driveways it could be six feet deep,” he said.
For this reason, Forstrom highly recommends that residents do not plow their yards or over their water pipes.
Area residents who have had problems with pipes freezing in the past or whose pipes have already froze once this year may have been told by their local officials to run their water the width of a pencil diameter until further notice.
So far, Iron River is the only local community to issue a city-wide “let run” order.
Iron River City Manager Perry Franzoi said that the order will likely be in effect until April. Customers’ bills will be based on average consumption from previous billing cycles, he added.
“This will help not only the service lines but the whole system,” said Franzoi. “It benefits the entire city.’
Some city managers felt that a city-wide “let run” order could do more harm for their communities than good.
Both Anderson and Edlebeck noted that the influx of water would be a burden for their water treatment plants and their budgets.
Anderson pointed out that Norway is already facing extra treatment costs from the over 200 customers who experienced a freeze and were told to run their water.
In Kingsford, about 125 customers are running their water, said Edlebeck.
Even though temperatures are forecasted to warm up into the 20s and 30s next week, it could be some time before the frozen pipe problem subsides.
“You might have an air temperature in the 20s, but six feet down, the frost is still moving,” Forstrom explained. “It’ll take time for it to stop and come back the other way.”
Nikki Younk’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.