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DJ McDougall of Green's Plumbing and Heating in Detroit Lakes feverishly pulls a hot water tube out of the water line at the Detroit Lakes Airport building Tuesday afternoon after unclogging a frozen water line serving the airport. DL NEWSPAPERS/Brian Basham

Residents, businesses throughout Minnesota experiencing frozen pipes

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It’s the great freeze of 2014.

If your water or sewer pipes haven’t frozen this winter, consider yourself one of the lucky ones. Business owners, residents and city staff are saying this is the worse year for freezing pipes that any of them have seen.

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“Normally this is the time we start seeing this. We got hit early,” Detroit Lakes Public Utilities General Manager Vernell Roberts said.

He said the week of Feb. 3, the city was notified of one or two freeze-ups. The following Monday and Tuesday, staff heard of a few more.

“The 13th and 14th, it just exploded. It’s just been nuts,” he said.

As of Monday, Detroit Lakes had 65 reports of frozen pipes. And those are the ones that reported it to the city; there could be more.

It’s not just Detroit Lakes residents suffering through this deep freeze — it’s a statewide issue.

Roberts said he was sent numbers Monday from various cities throughout the state wrestling with freezing pipes. St. Cloud reported 252 incidents. Rochester reported over 200. Duluth reported 130, Mankato reported 25 and St. Paul reported 357.

Frazee also sent out a notice last week, asking residents to let their water run to keep pipes from freezing.

And not only is it happening all over the state, it’s happening all over town, too. Roberts said he had a map made of where the freeze-ups in Detroit Lakes occurred, hoping to notify people in a certain neighborhood, but he found that they were scattered throughout the entire city.

“There’s no rhyme or reason to it,” he said.

According to the Minnesota Department of Transportation’s website, the depth of frost in Ottertail — the closest site to Detroit Lakes that’s monitored is at 96 inches. Last year, the worst it got was about 70 inches.

Well, 96 inches is eight feet, and the city lays water mains between eight and nine feet “for good old fashioned Minnesota winters,” Roberts said.

Good ole winter is getting the best of those lines this year though.

So in order for homeowners and businesses to avoid freezing pipes, Roberts is asking them to do two things — leave a pencil-thick stream of water running and check the temperature of the water.

Groundwater is about 50-54 degrees, but Roberts said it cools some getting through pipes to the residents. Residents with temps around 40 degrees should be safe. If it is colder than that, having a steady stream of water running can bring colder temperatures up.

Yes, some may say this is a waste of water, but Roberts said, running the water will “keep the system healthy and keep people’s services working.”

To make up for the extra water usage, the city will forgive the extra cost. Roberts said the city will take a look at water bills from March and April of 2013 and people will be billed for that amount rather than what they will be using this year.

“We’ll take it out of the equation,” he said of the extra cost, hoping to encourage people to run their water to save on the freeze-ups.

If pipes do freeze though, it’s the homeowner’s responsibility to get them thawed. Roberts said the city can’t help with that because there are no journeyman plumbers on staff, and it needs to be done by a professional.

The city understands this all too well itself. The city airport pipes froze this week, and Green’s Plumbing and Heating was called out to thaw them.

“We’ve been overrun with the city freeze-ups,” Green’s Plumbing and Heating co-owner Mark Green said.

He said there are three different ways of thawing the pipes that he and his crew use to get people their water again, depending on what’s wrong — water, sewer and size of the line are all variables.

“There’s been a lot of water (lines) and they’re a lot harder to get,” he said. “The 1-inch services we’re having really good luck with. The ¾ (inch) ones, probably 50 to 75 percent we get so you can get through them.”

There are temporary fixes, like from a neighbor, that can get water to a household, too, if the lines won’t thaw enough to use.

“It’s as bad as we’ve seen it for water services,” he said of the volume of freeze-ups. “It’s a severe situation right now.    

“You have to give the city credit. They’re doing their end too,” Green said of allowing people to run their water at no extra charge.

Green’s Plumbing and Heating is just one of several businesses in the area that can service frozen pipes. For more, call the city of Detroit Lakes Public Utilities Department.

This isn’t just a residential problem. Businesses in town are experiencing frozen pipes as well.

Midwest Printing is just one of several businesses that have been fighting the freezing battle. Employee Jessica Lill said last week the sewer pipes were frozen from Tuesday to Saturday, causing a major inconvenience for the staff.

“It didn’t set back the business at all. We were able to use the water; it was just the two toilets we have in back,” she said.

She said they noticed when they would flush, waste would come back up and plumbers weren’t sure what was wrong at first.

She said it was mainly just a problem for the employees, though they did have to tell a few customers that they couldn’t use the bathroom when they inquired.

The employees had to utilize neighboring businesses’ bathrooms. She said they would run to M&H, but had to wait in line and get the key for the locked bathrooms.

“You’d be holding it and you really had to go cause you can’t just keep running over there all the time, and it was so cold outside, too,” she said.

Lill said she even offered her home bathroom to all the out-of-town employees for a little more convenience.

“We’re just hoping nothing else happens,” she said with a laugh.

“It’s not going to get better anytime soon,” Roberts said, adding that the frost should be out by mid-April — hopefully.

Residents should continue to check the city’s website (cityweb.lakesnet.net) and local media because since it’s such a mass issue, he said that’s the only way he can get the word out on when residents can cut back on running water and other updates.

“People take it for granted,” he said of having water readily available at the turn of a knob.

Not anymore for some.

Follow Pippi Mayfield on Twitter at @PippiMayfield.

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