TRAVERSE CITY — Muriel Nelson leaves a slim stream of water running in her Traverse City home. She's afraid to turn it off for fear her water pipes will freeze again.
Nelson is among a growing number of people in Traverse City who have had problems with buried water lines that freeze oustide the home. The cause, city officials said, tends to be too much snow-shoveling and lines not buried deep enough. Pipes freeze where they run under roads, sidewalks or driveways that lack snow cover.
"If you have snow cover it helps act as insulation," said Dave Green, Traverse City's director of public works. "When you keep sidewalks and driveways clear of snow the frost gets driven down into the ground."
City work crews will thaw the pipes if freezing occurs between the water main and what is known as the curb stop, a valve that tends to sit next to the sidewalk. Workers dig up the curb stop, dismantle it, and run a small tube of recirculating hot water inside the service pipe to thaw the ice. Work crews said they are responding to one or two calls a day; as of Thursday they'd had responded to about 18 frozen pipes.
When the line freezes beyond the curb stop it becomes the responsibility of the property owner to have it thawed.
Nelson's water service runs under the driveway at the home she rents. The owner called a plumber to thaw the pipes.
"I've got my water running and I'm going to keep it running," Nelson said. "I'll have to pay for it, but I have no idea how much. I"ll just wait until I get the bill."
Officials for the cities of Petoskey, Boyne City, and Manistee have asked all water customers to run a pencil thin stream of water 24 hours a day until spring to prevent service freeze-ups.
Traverse City officials advise customers whose lines have frozen to leave a trickle of water running, but they don't anticipate issuing a city-wide request. The problems cropped up among a small percentage of the city's 7,500 customers.
"We can't go out and waste a bunch of water and put it into the sewer, it's just too ... expensive," said Justin Roy, water and sewer maintenance superintendent for Traverse City.
The problems remain minor compared to a similarly cold winter that occurred 20 years ago, when the city responded to about 400 calls of frozen lines, Roy said. Since then the city began to bury its water mains five feet or deeper and fixing the known trouble spots, Roy said.
Traverse City also had several water mains break as the ground freezes and shifts, but the city is not alone in its problems. The merciless winter is taking a heavy toll on the nation's pipes and pavement as far south as Georgia, breaking hundreds of water mains that turn streets into frozen rivers and opening potholes so big they snap tire rims and wheel axles like Popsicle sticks.
Broken water mains created the most dramatic scenes — and the greatest challenge for repair crews, who must dig into rock-hard ground to reach pipes that are up to a century old and cannot withstand the pressure created by earth that shifts as it freezes.
Grand Traverse County Department of Public Works officials haven't had one service line freeze or main break in the townships of Acme, Peninsula, East Bay, Garfield, and Elmwood Township in Leelanau County.
The county's mains are newer than the city's and all are buried at least six feet deep, said George Champlin, a DPW manager.
The DPW does suspect a leak at the Timberlee development in Elmwood Township, based on a larger than normal water draw from that area. Snow cover thus far prevented workers from finding an underground leak, but the break might be from inside someone's home.
"Sometimes people tend to be gone for the winter, so it's hard to know if it's a main or a house," said DPW Director Mike Slater. "Somebody will see a big bill if it's a private line."
The ASSOCIATED PRESS contributed to this report.