Below-zero temps, little snow = frozen pipes and septicsTake action now to insulate your septic system, or it may be too late.
By: John Myers, Duluth News Tribune
The first big cold snap of a winter when there’s little snow on the ground means Midway Pumping Service may be busy in coming days, thawing-out frozen septic systems.
Same for Duluth’s Public Works crews, who will see more than their share of frozen water pipes that crack, sending water gushing out of the ground and cutting off hot showers for nearby residents.
The problem this winter is that there is almost no snow to insulate the ground. Researchers say that 10 inches of fluffy snow has the same insulation values as R-18 fiberglass.
The colder the air temperatures get (and they are expected to fall below zero again next week) the deeper the frost moves into the ground. Dry soils from our lingering drought also help conduct cold into the ground. That cold surrounds pipes and septic tanks and drain fields. And the longer that cold lasts without snow, the deeper the frost goes. And the more systems freeze.
“The last bad one was in 2003 when we had cold but no snow. It hit on Jan. 15 and we didn’t stop running for three months,” said Rich Borg, owner of Midway Sewer Service in Proctor. “We made a lot of money. But the agony wasn’t worth it. It was too much. … I hope we get some snow soon or we’re going to see it like that again.”
Borg is urging rural residents with systems to take action now, before the frost gets too deep. “We’re right on the line. It’s almost too late,” he said.
Otherwise you may end up paying him $200 to $600 to thaw your system out.
“And it’s like thawing out a straw that’s running through an ice cube. We can do it, but the ground is still cold and a lot of times it just freezes up again and we have to come back out again,” he said.
Septic systems are vulnerable in four areas, experts say: the pipe from the house to the tank; the tank itself, along with any pump system; the pipes from the tank to the drainfield; and the drainfield itself.
Experts at North Dakota State University suggest first fixing any leaky fixtures in the house, as a cold drizzle of water through pipes makes things worse. Next, place some type of mulch — hay, straw, bags of leaves, etc. — at least a foot thick and at least 5 feet wide over the exit point where your septic pipe leaves the house. (If you have some snow you also can shovel snow over the area or place a snow fence in the area to trap snow.)
Water tends to hold heat well so systems that are used often, at least daily, usually don’t freeze up. But when the house or cabin is vacant for days on end, water in the system cools and can freeze.
The pipe from the septic tank to the drain field also can freeze. And the drain field itself can be a problem if it’s in low areas or doesn’t have grass or mulch on it.
“If the leachfield (drainfield) freezes, then you basically go into a store-and-pump mode,” Borg said, referring to pumping out the tank repeatedly.
An average tank holds about 1,500 gallons. But the average person uses about 50 gallons of water per day for toilets, cooking and cleaning, showers and washing clothes. A family of four could fill up a tank in a week or so.
A new drainfield without a grass cover is subject to freezing and should be mulched. It is especially important to mulch around exposed inspection pipes, risers and the manhole. Distribution boxes are also subject to freezing and should be mulched.
The University of Minnesota Extension Service suggests keeping all traffic — even foot traffic and pets — off all parts of the septic system. Driving or even walking on the system just drives the frost faster and deeper down.
If your septic system is frozen, University officials say, your first step is to turn off any pumps and then call an onsite septic professional. Many pumpers and installers have devices called steamers and high-pressure, hot water jets to try to unfreeze system piping. But, unless the underlying cause of freezing is corrected, the piping will refreeze.
Other methods used to help fix a freezing problem include adding heat tape and tank heaters. Cameras can be sent down the pipes to determine where the freezing is occurring and if repairs are needed. If the drainfield is iced-up, or there is evidence of leaking, you can skip trying to thaw the lines out to the field because it won’t work until spring.
That’s when you will have to call a septic pumper like Borg to keep your tank empty.
“What we need is a foot of snow real soon,” Borg said. “Or it’s going to get ugly.”