Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

City crews slow to thaw frozen pipes

Fort Garry man has been without water since the end of January

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Some Winnipeg residents with no water service have been waiting nearly a month for the city to thaw their pipes because their streets are served by plastic as opposed to metal service lines.

More than 300 Winnipeg homes and businesses have no water service because the cold has penetrated the ground to the point where water-service pipes have frozen. The average wait time for a city crew to come and thaw one of those pipes is 10 to 14 days. In the case of metal pipes, a two-person crew operating a portable battery called a DBH machine simply rolls up, attaches metal poles to the pipes and cranks up enough current to heat the pipes.

Properties served by ABS plastic pipes, however, are more difficult to thaw because plastic does not conduct electricity. To thaw these pipes, the city must remove snow from the surface, soil from the ground and then attach metal to the pipes before they can be heated, water distribution engineer Tim Shanks said earlier this week.

This complex process requires multiple visits from city employees, according to residents waiting for the procedure to be completed.

Fort Garry homeowner Ryan Black, for example, lost his water service on Jan. 31. He has waited 27 days for the city to thaw the plastic pipe in his vicinity.

In the interim, he's drawn water from an obliging neighbour through the use of a garden hose, which initially froze within two days of being attached but is now buried below the snow.

Black said he has no idea when the city will restore his water service and has grown weary of contacting 311 about his nearly month-long ordeal.

"The frustrating thing is the lack of information I've been receiving about the situation," he said.

"Every time I call 311, they treat it as a new call."

Kilometres away in the West End, Bernice and Don Salter have gone without water for 18 days. They also live adjacent an ABS plastic pipe, which they fear may have been buried too shallow in the ground when their street was repaved, based on what city workers have told them.

The city buries water mains between 2.1 and 2.7 metres below the surface and has found frost penetrating to the top of that range this winter. During a normal winter, frost rarely penetrates as deep as 1.5 metres, according to Environment Canada, but streets or sidewalks cleared of insulating snow can allow more heat to escape from the ground.

The long wait required to excavate and thaw ABS plastic pipes is due in part to the workload facing city crews this winter. The same city employees tasked with digging to fix water-main breaks also work on frozen water pipes, Shanks said.

Human resources are not an issue when it comes to thawing metal pipes, he insisted, as the city has only three DBH machines, which are no longer in production and cannot be rented.

The city has ordered similar machines from a different supplier, but does not expect them to be as effective on longer sections of pipe, Shanks said Wednesday.

"We are just ordering them to try all options," he said in a statement.

The city was not able to say how many properties without water are served by metal pipes vs. non-metallic pipes. It has logged a total of approximately 500 reports of frozen pipes this calendar year.

The city received an average of 16 calls per day in January and 30 to 40 per day this month.

Shanks said he expects all to be cleared before the spring, even with more reports coming in.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 27, 2014 B4

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