Extreme cold leads to water woes

Ten days of continuous below-zero temperatures and wind chills that began Feb. 5 caused many pipes in the northland to freeze.

Clint Olson, Jr. manages Elsner Well Drilling.

“People started calling when that wind came up Friday, Feb. 5,” he said. “It was phenomenal. I had through the roof numbers of calls I’ve never seen before. At one point, we couldn’t even give callers a time frame, just that they were caller X on the list. I think why things got so crazy busy is we’ve had a very nice winter. I don’t think most people were properly prepared for that extreme 40-mile-an-hour north wind.”

Many callers were able to thaw their line out themselves by using a hair dryer to warm the pipes. Those with bigger issues received a service call.

“We use a jetting tool that uses hot water from a tank on our truck to thaw things out,” he said. “We unthawed some automatic watering systems used for livestock that froze too.”

Mobile homes and unwinterized cabins

Olson said the strong winds drove the cold air under mobile homes that weren’t heat taped or where the heat tape failed and pipes froze.


Another issue Olson said is unique this year is people who came up north to work remotely in residences that hadn’t been properly winterized.

“Some of these homes were not designed for year-round use,” he said. “The crawl spaces had no insulation.”

Olson said he recommends putting a thermometer wire into the crawl space or under the trailer and running it so the temperature can be monitored from inside.

Running water also helps keep lines open.

“When you run your water at a pencil stream, that’s hard on the well pump,” he said. “Go full stream for 15 minutes every once in a while and you’ll be good.”

Olson said he often gets calls from people asking if they can use a propane or kerosene heater with a flame and blower under their mobile home.

“I would never do that in a million years,” he said. “You’re taking a chance of throwing a spark and all of that insulation under your home catching fire and burning down your home.”

Issues with wells

“A lot of people aren’t putting their heaters low enough in the well house,” Olson explained. “Say someone has a 4-foot-by-4-foot well house. A heater setting 10 inches up from the floor may show 70 degrees but at the floor it may be 30 degrees. The frost is going down, in from the side and underneath the well house.”


The strong wind also blew frigid air into tiny air cracks.

“The wind blew in there like a wind tunnel and froze up the pump,” he said. “We weren’t thawing out the well. The well itself never freezes. It’s the service line going to the home.”

Even though the temperatures are warmer now, Olson’s advice is to keep checking pipes and wells.

“We’re not out of the clear,” he said. “Before winter even hit, we were seeing frost at four feet deep at construction sites. But places with snow where no one has been walking on it, there may be no frost.”

Sand points with a well pit are at a minimum of six feet into the ground, with some as deep at 8-10 feet.

“The frost will never get down to 10 feet deep,” he said. “So some people rely on the geothermal heating of the ground to keep the pump warm. That works if your well pit’s deep enough. But some of these cabins that were never meant to be used in the winter, might only have well pits that are four feet deep.

“I recommend going to buy a milk house heater for $30 that is thermostatically controlled. Put that in the well pit and plug it into an outlet. Set your thermostat to 45 degrees or 50 degrees. It’s the cheapest piece of insurance you can buy. If you never need it, great. But if your pit gets really cold and your well pump freezes, now you’re talking a pretty premium service call to replace that pump and everything else. Unplug that heater at the end of the season and you’re good to go.”

For those who prefer to use insulation on top of the well cover, fresh snow, a septic blanket or straw can also be used. “But straw attracts rodents,” he said.


Cities had fewer issues

Scott Burlingame is the superintendent of public works for the city of Park Rapids. He said impacts on residences in the city have been minimal and included a couple of calls on service lines: a storm sewer and a couple of water calls. All of these were private lines.

His advice to residents is to keep an eye on their water.

“Most everybody in town, generally, is aware of that, because it's an every-winter thing, but they'll monitor the temperature,” he said. “If it gets below 36 degrees, they should think about running their water.”

Minnesota Rural Water recommends residents running water to keep the stream a pencil-width in diameter.

Akeley is in the process of filling their water/sewer/utilities supervisor position. City Clerk Kristi Kath said they have had several residents with frozen water pipes. Freeze plates on meters that have broken have also been replaced.

“The freeze plates are designed to crack when the water freezes so it doesn’t destroy the whole meter,” she said. “The city has requested some specific individuals at the end of the line to keep their water running so our city system doesn’t develop any problems.”

Nevis water and sewer supervisor Don Umthun could not be reached for comment.

Lorie Skarpness has lived in the Park Rapids area since 1997 and has been writing for the Park Rapids Enterprise since 2017. She enjoys writing features about the people and wildlife who call the north woods home.
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