Hard frost bangs up water, sewer pipes; Prairie du Chien responds to about 40 frozen pipe issues in city, more expected

city responds
The Prairie du Chien Water Department is shown responding to a home on Wisconsin Street where water pipes froze on Thursday morning last week. A total of 32 water services in the city have frozen since mid-January due to this year’s abnormally deep frost. The city has also advised 106 customers to run their water 24 hours a day, seven days a week, until further notice. Property owners who feel they should start trickling their water must contact City Hall or the city’s water department and sign a card so that the city is aware of the situation. The city can adjust people’s accounts and give them credit for the excess water, but the signed card is required for this to happen. (Photo by Correne Martin)
In most cases of frozen pipes, the city uses a welder and two T-rods on either side of the homeowner's driveway to send an electrical current through the pipes underground and unthaw the ice inside the pipes so water service can be restored to the home.

By Correne Martin

This winter is quickly going down in the record books as one of the coldest in history. According to National Weather Service data, our region hasn’t seen temperatures this frigid since the late-1970s and early-‘80s. As of Feb. 10, this winter had averaged 11.3oF (in La Crosse) and we had seen 36 days of sub-zero temperatures.

As the terribly cold days continue, the depth of the frost has driven deeper and deeper into the ground every day, to levels a minimum of four to five feet deep—an occurrence that isn’t typical for the area. Ordinarily, according to Prairie du Chien Public Works officials, frost is about two- to three-feet deep during winters in our region. But, in this record-breaking year, the phenomenon is causing an extraordinary number of issues with frozen water pipes and sanitary sewer lines in communities all over the area.

As of Monday, the city of Prairie du Chien Public Works Department had serviced 32 households/businesses experiencing frozen pipes since Jan. 13. The city also had over 105 customers trickling their water constantly to prevent their services from freezing.

“I suspect to have many more before this is all done,” Co-Manager of Public Works Larry Gates said.

As of late Friday, Terry Meyer, the other co-manager of public works, said the city had responded to seven cases of frozen sanitary sewer lateral at households and businesses and one instance of a frozen sewer main in the community just last week.

“We’ve had two minor (sewer) backups in people’s homes, but otherwise no major damage,” Meyer stated. “Most of the residents saw that their toilets weren’t flushing very well and contacted us before anything serious happened.”

Thankfully, no major damage has occurred at any of the locations the city has serviced—for either water or sewer. Plus, the city workers have been able to unthaw the water pipes and sanitary sewer lateral, restoring these necessary services for people within a day of when the problems have occurred.

For the water department, most pipes have been unthawed by a welder, connected to two T-shaped rods that run underground to the water pipes, discharging electrical current into the pipes that eventually heat the ice into running water again. Of course, before any of this is done, the men safely unhook water meters on all adjacent properties to keep the electrical current from tracking elsewhere within the home or business, potentially causing a fire hazard.

For the sanitary sewer department, the city uses its jetting truck to run a hose down to the sewer main, where it dispenses hot water that melts and flushes the ice and frozen material through the pipes, allowing for the service to work again.

The extra hours have amounted to overtime and additional expenses for the city. Yet Prairie du Chien has avoided complete disaster thus far.

Other communities haven’t been so lucky. In the case of nearby Guttenberg, Iowa, on Friday, over 30 homes had been without water for several days, and some residents were being told it might be spring before they have running water again. One resident reported that she heard people were melting snow for use in their homes. The city of Guttenberg was in contact with Prairie du Chien late last week for guidance on the situation; but it’s important to note that each city faces its own unique circumstance in these conditions.

Certainly, Prairie du Chien property owners should be aware of what to do as the frost will continue to be an issue.

Water department Operator Dan Odeen strongly believes it will be April before the frost comes out of the ground. He said even when it starts to warm up, it’s going to take a lot longer than normal for the frost to emerge. He warns the public to be patient and heed the advice of the public works department.

If Prairie du Chien customers are currently running their water (and some may know to do this because they have shallow pipes), they are advised to continue running their water 24 hours a day, seven days a week, until they are notified by the water department that the frost depth has decreased.

“It may take until the end of March until we receive enough constant warm temperatures to allow the frost to decrease in the ground,” Gates said. “The one mistake customers make is thinking, when the temperature becomes warmer for one or two days, that they can shut their water off and be safe. But that is not the case. It will take many consecutive warm days for the frost depth to decrease. We will notify the customers when to shut off their water.”

Gates pointed out that this unusual year is causing more customers than ever to experience frozen pipe issues. However, that doesn’t mean every customer in the city should run their water. He said the city’s well pumps would not be able to keep up with that kind of demand.

“If customers are in an area where their water has frozen in the past or if their water temperature becomes below 40 degrees, they need to start running their water to prevent their service from freezing,” Gates explained. “Generally a stream of water the size of a pencil will prevent the water from freezing. We have found that some customers have to have their water run more than a pencil stream due to the depth of the frost.”

Any city property owners who have concerns may contact City Hall at 326-6406 or the water department at 326-8213. Staff will respond as soon as they are able, take a look and provide some guidance. Property owners who feel they should start trickling their water must contact City Hall or the water department and sign a card so that staff is aware of the situation. The city’s billing department can adjust people’s accounts and give them credit for the excess water, but the signed card is required for this to happen.

Sanitary sewer customers who notice their systems are not flushing normally or are otherwise acting up may contact City Hall at 326-6406 or the wastewater treatment plant at 326-8534.

Customers are asked to be patient in awaiting a response. Gates said all personnel may be out in the field tending to frozen services.

“Performing these types of tasks are time consuming and do not allow us to be near the phone,” he noted.

“In the 25 years that I’ve worked for the city, this is the worst year I can remember,” Meyer added. “With an abnormally hard winter like this, people need to keep an eye on things and quit using their services if they notice anything unusual, until we can get in contact with them.”

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