Cities work to address pipe freezes

A frigid winter has left many in the Upper Peninsula without water, but cities are actively working to address freezes and keep things flowing.

“We’re right at 171 (water lines) that we have thawed out to date,” said Eric Buckman, Gladstone water/wastewater superintendent.

In addition to the 171 thawed water lines, 10 buildings were switched to temporary water lines because their in-ground lines were unable to be thawed.

Another 85 people in the city are on “let run” orders, which instruct residents to let water run in their homes to avoid pipe freezes. Residents who are instructed to let their water run are billed an amount considered typical for their average water consumption.

Water lines in the city are typically buried about six feet below ground at a level below the average level of Lake Michigan. This allows warm lake water underground to rest against the water lines and prevent them from freezing. However, low lake levels have removed the water from the soil and allowed the pipes to reach freezing temperatures.

For some, the problem is compounded when snow is plowed from yards.

“Snow is a good insulator but (if) you plow your whole yard that frost is going to go deeper,” said Buckman.

Buckman believes that the worst winter in his 28 years at the city was in 1994 when extreme temperatures caused damage to water lines and mains across the U.P. In Gladstone, only 130 water lines froze that winter, but insulation and line replacements following the freezes prevented many of the same lines from freezing this winter.

“We’ve hardly had any repeats from then,” said Buckman.

Still, seven sewer mains have been thawed with steam this year and the city believes that up to three water mains may still be frozen.

Anyone who experiences a water or sewer line freeze up is asked to call the Gladstone Water Department at 428-3460 between the hours of 7 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. to be put on the list of homes and businesses that need their lines thawed.

“It’s a very short list,” said Buckman, adding that water and wastewater staff were nearly caught up on dealing with line freeze calls.

In Manistique fewer residents need to have their water lines thawed thanks to infrastructure upgrades made in the last five years, but those residents that do have frozen lines may be unable to have them thawed.

The upgrades, which took place in 2010 and 2011, replaced 50,000 linear feet of water and sewer lines in the city. The lines were also installed at a greater depth than previous water lines.

“Seventy percent of our water distribution system is buried seven feet or lower,” said Corey Barr, Manistique superintendent of water/wastewater treatment and water distribution.

In areas of the city that were not upgraded, freeze ups are still an issue and approximately 50 “let run” orders have been issued.

The city’s infrastructure changes and let run orders may have limited the number of freeze ups, but residents who do experience a frozen water line may be out of luck.

“We’re no longer thawing pipes by electric means,” said Barr, adding the city is now recommending local plumbers to anyone who experiences a freeze up.

Last week, on the advisement of the city’s insurance company, a ban on electric line thaws was imposed. The action comes after seven homes in the city caught fire as city crews attempted to heat the lines this winter.

“Four of them were not the houses we were hooked up to,” noted Barr.

Currently less than 20 homes have frozen water lines, but according to Barr those buildings are connected by hoses to other homes and have access to water.

Despite not thawing water lines, city crews are still thawing frozen sewer lines – a process that does not require heating pipes.

“It’s a slow process. We just go chip through the ice, but so far we’ve managed to get all the sewers thawed,” said Barr.