Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Slow burn over frozen pipes

Deep frost a result of polar vortex

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If your home or business doesn't have water right now, consider yourself another victim of the polar vortex.

An unprecedented number of frozen water pipes in Winnipeg are the result of unusually deep frost in the soil, itself a result of the extreme cold in southern Manitoba this winter.

The backlog for thawing frozen pipes is now up to two weeks, as the city has only three electric pipe-warming machines to tackle 296 outstanding complaints, city water distribution engineer Tim Shanks said Tuesday.

While city water mains are buried 2.4 metres below the ground, many of the service pipes connecting to private homes and businesses are placed at more shallow depths, Shanks said.

During an average winter, Environment Canada's lone soil-temperature gauge at Richardson International Airport estimates the depth of frost at somewhere between one metre and 1.5 metres, meteorologist Dale Marciski said.

A frost depth of 1.5 metres is all but unheard of -- but the soil that deep at the airport is close to freezing, Marciski said.

City crews excavating soil to conduct water-main repairs have routinely found the ground frozen to a depth of 2.1 metres this winter, Shanks said.

While most of the ground in Winnipeg is insulated by nearly 50 centimetres of snow, roads and other areas cleared of snow allow the cold to penetrate deeper into the soil, he explained.

"Underneath a roadway, there's greater heat loss. There's no snow on a roadway," Shanks said. "The colder the winter it is, we're seeing the frost driven deeper into the ground."

During a normal winter, 311 begins fielding calls about frozen water pipes in January, Shanks said. Thanks to the bitter cold this winter, the calls began in December.

Since the beginning of 2014, no fewer than 489 Winnipeg property owners have reported frozen pipes. Of those homes and businesses, 193 were serviced by one of three city-owned DBH machines, which use electrodes to heat up metal water pipes.

As of Tuesday, another 296 complaints sat in the queue, with anywhere from 30 to 40 new calls expected to come in every day, Shanks said.

While the city has authorized staff to work overtime so the machines can operate seven days a week -- and 24 hours a day for five of those days -- the capacity to thaw pipes at more properties is limited by the small number of machines at the city's disposal, Shanks said.

"The specialized electrical thawing machine is something that's not manufactured anymore. No local contractors have it. We can't even rent them," he said.

Hot water or steam machines, meanwhile, can't thaw the longer pipes that extend from water mains to private homes and businesses, he added.

The work is complicated when pipes must be outfitted with electrodes, a job that requires snow removal and soil excavation, Shanks added.

As a result of varying conditions from one property to another, the time it takes to thaw a frozen pipe ranges from 20 minutes to 14 hours, Shanks said. This has confounded the city's ability to make long-term predictions about when individual calls will be serviced, he said.

The pipes at risk of freezing include both city-owned service pipes -- which run from a water main to a shutoff valve located at a private property line -- and privately owned pipes that extend into homes and businesses.

In an effort to prevent more city-owned pipes from freezing, the city has asked about 440 high-risk property owners to run cold water at a trickle -- at no cost to the property owners in question.

The city has notified an additional 660 property owners where the private pipes are at risk of freezing that they might want to run cold water at a trickle overnight. The city will not compensate these property owners for the additional water use, pegged at $500 over three months.

Shanks said the city has never experienced frozen-pipe problems on this scale, but pledged all calls will be cleared well before the spring.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition February 26, 2014 B1

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