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Erik Burgess, Published April 05 2014

Moorhead considers thaw fee after rash of frozen pipes

FARGO – Deep frost frustrated utility crews in the metro area all winter, freezing far more water lines than usual.

After such a bad year, at least one city is considering charging residents if they need to have a water line thawed more than once during the winter.

Fargo has spent about $300,000 to thaw out about 300 frozen pipes this winter. Typically, only a few thousand dollars are spent thawing about 25 pipes.

“This year was horrific,” said Ben Dow, Fargo’s public works director.

Moorhead Public Service, the city’s publicly owned utility, spent an estimated $15,000 on about 30 frozen pipes this year. One to five frozen pipes is the winter norm, utility officials said.

As the frost got deeper this winter, residents who have had those problems before were asked to run their faucets to keep pipes from freezing. But typically, utility crews in all three cities have fixed the frozen pipes free of cost.

On Tuesday, Moorhead’s utility board will discuss changing that policy and charging residents a fee if they need their pipes thawed more than once in a winter, said General Manager Bill Schwandt.

The fee would be a couple hundred dollars, Schwandt said.

“The big thing is, if somebody’s water line freezes, then obviously they’re prone to freezing,” he said. “Then we really want them to run the water. Well, what if they don’t and it freezes again? Then we’re saying, we’re going to charge a nominal fee to come out and do it the second time or beyond.”

Who should pay?

Fargo and West Fargo will thaw a line free of charge if the freeze occurs from the water main to the shut off valve, which is underground usually near the boulevard.

If the freeze occurs on the part of the line nearer to the home, it would be the homeowner’s responsibility to get it cleared in West Fargo and Fargo, although Dow said Fargo has only had a couple of those cases this year, and the city fixed them for free anyway.

In considering charging for multiple thaw jobs in the same year, MPS President Ken Norman said the board doesn’t want to “overburden” customers.

At the same time, Norman said if a homeowner with a frozen pipe has been asked to trickle water, and they don’t and the line freezes again, “I don’t know if public service should bear the expense of that.”

Norman said he was not aware of any Moorhead homes where utility crews had to thaw water pipes twice this winter.

The costs of the freeze-ups were higher in Fargo than in Moorhead – $224,000 to thaw lines and another $60,000 to $80,000 expected to finish repair work after all that digging – but Dow said the expense shouldn’t be passed along to owners of the homes that require the work.

“We’re in the customer service business. That’s what we’re here for,” he said. “They’re paying their utilities fees to maintain this stuff.”

Dow will soon ask city officials for a midyear budget adjustment to help cover the costs this winter, and he said he would likely ask for more money in that line-thawing budget for next year.

He also said he wants to tackle the problem at the source – finding the lines that are susceptible to frost and burying them deeper.

Fargo did that with about 10 troublesome lines last year, and none of them froze this year, Dow said.

Lots of cold, little snow

It wasn’t just consistently severe cold that caused this winter’s rash of frozen pipes, WDAY Chief Meteorologist John Wheeler said. A lack of snow was a huge factor.

Snow acts as insulation and helps keep the ground warm, but only about 33 inches of snow has fallen in Fargo-Moorhead this winter, 17 inches below average, Wheeler said.

“The biggest part of this was that we didn’t have much snow cover, and what we did have was constantly being drifted and blown into piles,” he said.

That meant frost 6 feet down and sometimes even deeper, Wheeler said. Even cold years have previously only produced about 5 feet of frost, Dow said.

When pipes freeze, crews try to clear the lines with injections of hot water, usually costing a couple of hundred dollars and taking a few hours, said Kris Knutson, water division manager for Moorhead Public Service.

But sometimes the pipe has to be dug up to get better access to the frozen spot. That can cost thousands of dollars and take days to remedy, Knutson said.

It’s generally more of a problem in older residential areas. There were about eight frozen lines this winter in West Fargo, said City Administrator Jim Brownlee.

Brownlee credits the city’s relatively new infrastructure for the smaller number of freeze-ups.

“We haven’t had a frozen pipe in West Fargo in 10 years, so this has been for us a bad year,” Brownlee said.

MPS to look at credit

The especially frosty and snowless winter can also be more expensive for residential water users if they run their faucets to prevent freezing.

Fargo and West Fargo credit homeowners who have to run their water constantly during the winter to keep pipes clear, only charging them for an average month’s water usage.

Moorhead Public Service doesn’t offer the credit, though it could be on the table for discussion Tuesday, Schwandt said.


Readers can reach Forum reporter Erik Burgess at (701) 241-5518