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Frigid temps, lack of snow cause wave of septic freeze-ups

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Breaking ice
Homeowner John McDonald looks on as plumber Ryan Norberg uses a pole to break through ice in a septic system in rural Bemidji. Thousands of systems have frozen up in recent weeks due to frigid temperatures. Minnesota's thin snow cover makes septic systems especially vulnerable.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

This has been a lousy winter for people who make their living from snow. But Minnesota's thin snow cover has created a boom for some businesses. People who unfreeze frozen septic systems have been swamped with calls since the state hit the deep freeze.

People who live out in the country rely on septic systems to take care of their household sewage. Waste from toilets, showers and sinks flows to a big tank buried in the yard. The water drains out of the tank into the ground. That's called a drain field. What's left in the tank eventually has to be pumped out.

Typically, these systems work fine in Minnesota winters. Snow cover insulates the tanks and keeps them from freezing. But snowfall the past few years has been skimpy. Combine that with sub-zero temperatures and you've got trouble; frozen drain pipes, frozen septic tanks, frozen drain fields. 

As of June 2008, there were more than half a million septic systems in Minnesota.  Many were hard hit during the frigid winter of 2003. That year, the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency estimated that as many as half of rural individual septic systems in central and northern Minnesota failed because of freeze-ups.

It's happening again this year. Thousands of rural households have had septic freeze-ups over the past few weeks. Homeowners have little choice but to call for help. 

Plumbers at Hill's Plumbing and Heating in Bemidji have more work than they can handle. Office manager Holly Knutson says it's the same story with plumbing companies across the state. 

"Let's see, ...10, 11, 12, 13. Thirteen calls here that we haven't even touched yet," said Knutson, as she sifts through backlogged service calls. "You should have been here Monday, though. Monday (the phone) was ringing off the hook."

Holly Knutson
Holly Knutson, office manager for Hill's Plumbing and Heating in Bemidji says the office has been swamped with service calls for frozen septic systems.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

The recent cold snap means lots of overtime for plumber Ryan Norberg. He's hunched over a septic tank in the back yard of a rural Bemidji home. It's about 15 degrees below zero, but with the wind it feels more like 30 below. One good thing, at least, the frigid cold keeps the sewage smell to a minimum. 

Norberg is using a long plastic pipe to try to break through the ice in the tank.

"If his drain field is frozen, then his tank can't drain, so his tank is going to fill up," said Norberg. "Which means his line from the house is going to be full of water and freeze. And the water level looks awfully high in this one."

Norberg started working for Hill's Plumbing just last month. He says so far he's done nothing but deal with frozen septic systems.  

"The past three weeks it's been pretty much non-stop," he said. "The no snow for insulation and how cold it's been, usually this time of year we have three feet of snow by now."

When the region started seeing less snowfall a few years ago, the University of Minnesota Extension Service and other state agencies started putting out public advisories about the potential for septic freeze ups. They say busy households using lots of hot water can help keep pipes clear of ice. Leaky faucets or toilets will make freeze-ups more likely. 

Norberg says the best advice is to throw some kind of insulation over the septic system before winter gets here.

Ryan Norberg
Plumber Ryan Norberg has been getting lots of overtime lately dealing with frozen septic systems. Fixing the problem can cost homeowners hundreds of dollars.
MPR Photo/Tom Robertson

"In the fall, definitely, insulate your drain line," said Norberg. "Cover over your septic tank, hay or straw, you know. Because if we have more winters like this, you're going to need that insulation."

Norberg says an 8 to 12 inch layer of mulch or other vegetation will help prevent frost from penetrating deep into the ground.

It's too late for that at this rural Bemidji home. Norberg is using high pressure steam to unfreeze the tank.

"I'm still hitting ice and I'm almost two feet in," he said. "So I think his tank is pretty well frozen."

The best Norberg can do is thaw the tank with steam. The frozen drain field is a bigger problem, though. It means this septic tank will have to be emptied every week or two until the drain field thaws on its own. 

That's bad news for homeowner John McDonald. He's already spent hundreds of dollars on his septic system this winter. Now he'll probably have to spend more. 

McDonald says he and his family, meanwhile, will try to take showers, do laundry and use the bathroom someplace else.  

"Well, fortunately, I'm leaving for Minneapolis tomorrow, so I'll be gone for awhile," McDonald said. "Hopefully we can get it taken care of while I'm gone." 

The good news is that Minnesota's longest cold snap of the season is about to end. High temperatures around the state are expected back up into the teens and high 20s by next week.