Frozen indoor pipes are common every winter. But this year, it was so cold for so long that the pipes that bring water to your house from the main in the street have been freezing deep underground. It's costing some homeowners hundreds of dollars to get their water flowing again.
Even though temperatures finally began to creep upward this week, people like Stan Denkinger and his crew from the St. Paul water department are still as busy as ever, driving all over the city, thawing out residents' water pipes.
"Today, my crew, this is number 11," he said. In his 27 years on the job, Denkinger says this is the busiest winter he's seen.
As his assistants warm up a greasy, 1950s diesel-powered generator belching smoke, he clamps a heavy, black electrical cable that's as thick as a garden hose to a fire hydrant.
"The other line goes into the basement, and we'll hook it to the copper or lead line that comes out of the house, and we start our generator and it creates a charge through the line, heats up the pipe and thaws it out," he said.
As with jump-starting a car, Denkinger says getting a solid connection is critical. Once the 400 amps of current start flowing through the pipe, he says the ice will usually melt in anywhere from 15 minutes to several hours. But he says large commercial water lines can take several days to thaw.
Dave Wagner, who's in charge of distribution for St. Paul Regional Water Services, says laid-off employees were re-hired this winter to help with the huge work load.
"Last year we saw a total of three frozen services. And this year we've seen over 500 to date," he said, adding that St. Paul Regional Water will pay for thawing a customer's service line as long as the frozen part is between the water main and the property line. Wagner says that's usually the case.
"They're in the streets. There's no snow cover in the street, and the frost just drives down really deep," he said.
He hasn't totaled up the cost of all the thawing, but Wagner says it's likely in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Over in Minneapolis, homeowners say they are shouldering all of the costs themselves.
Jill Griffiths, who lives in the Marcy-Holmes neighborhood near downtown, has dealt with a frozen water service line twice in the last two weeks. First, she called a plumber, who said he couldn't do anything because the pipe was outside her house. The plumber suggested calling the city, so she did.
"They basically said that they are not responsible for what happens," she said.
The city put Griffiths in touch with a guy with an arc welder. He ran a lot of electricity through her pipes and melted the ice. But Griffiths says it hasn't been cheap: "Over $800 is what I've spent to date in two weeks."
Griffiths' neighbor, Peter Hudleston, says he had the same problem but spent nearly twice as much to get things fixed. Even after five hours of putting current across the pipe, an arc welder couldn't melt the ice.
"He bought a new generator overnight, and set up again and within about an hour and half we got water. And he didn't charge us for the second day, and we've been fine since then," Hudleston said.
Both Griffiths and Hudleston are running their water all the time in the hopes that moving water won't freeze in the pipes. They plan to do that for the rest of the month, or until they're certain the ground is thawed.
Now they're bracing for more sticker shock as they await their next water bills.