Town’s ability to help limited by ordinance, finances
By Don Nelson
Frozen service lines have left at least a dozen homes and businesses in Winthrop without water since the recent sub-zero temperatures, but there is little the town can do to restore water service before the frozen ground begins to thaw.
That’s cold comfort to residents who may have to wait until spring before their water connection works again.
The town’s water mains are fine. It’s service connections from the mains to exterior water meters, or to water meters inside buildings, that are suffering.
Winthrop officials are sympathetic, but point to a town ordinance that makes maintenance of water service lines the owners’ responsibility.
Methods for thawing frozen lines, such as “heat boxes” that send a small electric current through metal service pipes, can be privately contracted but may not solve the problem quickly.
Even if ambient temperatures soar, the frozen ground will be a long time warming up, which means pipes will take a while to thaw, Public Works Director Rick Karro said this week.
At last week’s Town Council meeting, Melinda Bourn told council members that water service to her home (which is also the office for her insurance business) stopped during the previous week’s cold spell. The service line to her residence goes under Highway 20 to connect with the water main on the other side of the road.
Bourn told the council that the town should have some responsibility for helping her restore water service. She said that Karro told her it would likely be spring before the problem could be resolved. Meanwhile, she is hauling water in 6-gallon containers, Bourn said.
Council member Rick Northcott said he agreed with Bourn that the town should have some responsibility to property owners because the water mains were not installed deep enough in the 1980s. He said the town should check vulnerable locations early in the winter and advise property owners to keep water running from a tap to head off freezing lines.
But Karro said this week that the town’s water mains aren’t the problem. They are not frozen and are working as they should, he said. The town did send notices to water users earlier, reminding them of potential freezing problems, Karro said.
At last week’s council meeting, Town Clerk Michelle Gaines read from the town code, which specifies that service hookups are property owners’ responsibility to maintain.
“That doesn’t make sense to me at all,” council member Kellen Northcott responded. He said he was aware of at least a dozen frozen service lines in town, including some other businesses. Northcott said that Karro also advised him that it might be spring before some services are restored.
“We’re not going to let all these people wait until spring,” council member Mike Strulic said. “Something has to be done … no matter what the cost.”
But the town doesn’t own any heat boxes or other devices that might be helpful in thawing lines. And Mayor Anne Acheson said there’s no money in the town budget for such purchases that could be part of a short-term solution. If the council members want to consider long-term solutions, she said, they should put it on the council agenda for consideration.
Kellen Northcott said he thinks town residents would be willing to pay a small amount in additional taxes to fund longer-term solutions.
In an interview, Gaines reiterated the town code’s provisions about service line responsibilities. She said that the service line to the Winthrop Barn, a town facility, was also frozen even though water had been left running in the building.
Acheson said in an interview that the public works department has been checking water meters “as they can” given its other duties such as plowing snow. “If I could thaw them myself, I would,” she said of the frozen lines.
The mayor acknowledged that the situation is frustrating for the town and property owners alike. “I’m concerned. The council is concerned,” she said.
Acheson said it may be not even be possible for the town to make recommendations on how to thaw service lines, because of potential liability issues if something goes wrong. As for additional town help, she said, “the council needs to have some understanding of what that would require.”
Karro said this week that frozen lines aren’t an unusual experience for the town. “It’s not uncommon, but conditions have been more extreme this year than most,” he said.
A major factor in whether lines freeze or not is how much snow is on the ground, because accumulated snow creates an insulating effect that protects pipes, Karro said. If a service line is under a driveway that has been plowed, for instance, it may have less natural insulation.
Usually, keeping some water running in a building — from a tap or toilet — is enough to prevent freezing. Many property owners do that, he said, but it’s not unusual for “muscle memory” to cause occupants to inadvertently turn off running water without thinking about it, Karro said.
“It doesn’t take more than a few minutes to freeze,” he said.
The majority of service lines that freeze are older connections, Karro said, and some may not be installed as deep as they should be. Some that have frozen in the past froze again this year, he added. “They’re prone to it.”
Warming temperatures will do little to help right away, Karro said. “That ground is not going to feel the effects of warmth for two months,” he said. “Warm temperatures don’t matter to water lines.”
Still, Karro said, the public works staff is checking water meters “as fast as we can.” Sometimes the problem can be solved at the meter, he said. The town will do whatever it can to help homeowners within its abilities, he added.
As for prevention, Karro said, “the only party that can control it is the homeowner … we can’t go into the house and turn on the water and keep it running.”