Severe winter weather plays havoc on pipes

HOUGHTON – The coldest winter in recent memory is taking its toll on plumbing.

Municipalities and pipe repairers in the area say the number of frozen pipes is many times higher than normal, driven by an unusually cold winter that has driven frost levels down below seven feet in some areas.

Property owners are generally responsible for thawing any frozen pipes on their territory. In the past two winters, Jon Carlson of Carlson Contracting got one call about frozen pipes. Even four years ago, he got 50. He’s already tripled that this year, getting up to 10 calls a day.

“It’s the busiest winter I’ve seen,” he said. “There’s more frost on the ground than I’ve ever seen.”

Houghton has had 80 frozen pipes and close to 200 customers who are running their water for a reduced fee, said City Manager Eric Waara. With Michigan Technological University students heading out on spring break next week, Houghton posted a reminder to students to leave a stream of water running at least the width of a pencil. To get credits in the spring, they should email so they can be adjusted for the amount on their water account in the spring.

“It’s a lot cheaper to let the water run than it is to get it thawed,” Waara said.

Municipalities providing let-run credits use formulas to determine the charge, using factors such as average water usage. Waara said depending on the latest round of readings, the city may readdress its formula, which dates back several decades.

“We just want to make sure we’re going to be treating people fairly,” Waara said.

As of Tuesday afternoon, there were 140 let-run requests from unfrozen pipes in Hancock, the most since the winter of 2002-03, City Manager Glenn Anderson said. About a dozen houses had to get water from a neighbor’s hose after their pipes could not be thawed.

Anderson cautioned students going on spring break to have someone turn their water on occasionally during the day. If that’s not possible, he said, they will be able to run their water for the week.

Hancock residents who have had at least one freeze-up in the past three winters are allowed to run up to 11,000 gallons a month over their average use for no additional charge. Start and end times will depend on weather.

“It’ll still be a problem until mid to late April,” Anderson said.

Baraga Village Manager Roy Kemppainen said they’re seeing an increasing number of freeze-ups, including two businesses and the sewer main into the village’s industrial park.

“This is just an exceptional year,” he said. “We haven’t seen this kind of weather for 20 years.”

To handle thawing pipes, local governments are directing residents to local contractors. Nic Manderfield of MTM Electrical and Plumbing said most houses take about an hour, although some can take all day; he was five hours into his latest job Tuesday afternoon.

Their backlog is probably 10 customers or more, Manderfield said.

“Usually we don’t even get into pipe thawing, we stay busy with plumbing and electrical and heating,” he said. “We’ve had so many calls this year.”

Manderfield said most of his calls have been in Houghton, with a few in Hancock and Trimountain.

Carlson said they’ve got a backlog of about a day. They’re taken in order, although people with older boilers who have no heat get pushed up the list.

He’s seen a lot of freezing on east- and west-running roads, which run with the prevailing wind.

“It blows the snow cover off and it makes the pipe more vulnerable, and it drives the frost deeper,” he said.