Big Rapids amends ordinances to reflect frozen pipe policy

PIPE PLANNING: Commissioners discussed changes to the Big Rapids city code during a meeting Monday. The changes were made to reflect the new frozen water pipe policy that was approved in October. (Pioneer photo/Adam Gac)

PIPE PLANNING: Commissioners discussed changes to the Big Rapids city code during a meeting Monday. The changes were made to reflect the new frozen water pipe policy that was approved in October. (Pioneer photo/Adam Gac)

BIG RAPIDS — Area residents may have found their cars unwilling to start this week, as the cold of winter sapped the life from batteries. With temperatures next week expected to drop into the single digits, homeowners may soon have to be wary of frozen pipes.

Big Rapids City Commissioners unanimously adopted a frozen water line policy in October and approved changes to the city code Monday to reflect the new policy. The need for an official policy in writing was made clear after several residents went weeks with frozen pipes last year, according to City Manager Steve Sobers.

In any municipality where residents’ pipes can freeze, city officials are responsible for making the decision to issue an order to run water, Sobers said.

“The question becomes: When does a city say let the water run,” he said. “If we experience even a 10 percent surge in water and sewer use, we have a $400,000 increase in cost, with no benefit.

“That call, in part, rested with me. And I waited and waited, because you get toward spring and you think things will get better. Sometimes they do, but last year they didn’t.”

The frozen water line policy is the city’s way of tackling the problem of freezing pipes in a consistent manner. The policy establishes a clear procedure for when the city will issue an order to run water as well as defining the options available for residents whose pipes have frozen.

Beginning with the fifth freeze up, the city will issue an order to run water. The city urges residents who run water to only use a pencil-lead-thick stream of water to prevent their pipes from freezing. The difference between a 1/16 inch diameter stream of water running constantly and a ¼ inch stream is more than 1 million gallons over the course of three months, Sobers said.

If an order to run water is issued, the city will adjust water bills back for half of the excess use by comparing usage to previous months.

“It’s better to have people run water than have everybody with frozen water lines,” Sobers said.

Residents whose pipes do freeze have several options. One option is to hire the Department of Public Works to use city equipment to thaw lines. The service costs $75 per hour and has some limitations, which may mean residents will need to hire an outside contractor, Sobers said.

“We aren’t guaranteeing we will thaw everybody’s lines. If a line turns, we can’t help you, because our equipment won’t do that,” he said. “We are not, at this point, prepared to go the electrical thawing route because of the inherent fire danger it creates, but if a resident wants to go that route that’s fine.”

On the other hand, as a substitute for thawing the line, the city will be more aggressive at hooking residents up to a neighbor’s water system, Sobers said.

“It’s an easier and better response to getting through the winter until spring, when you can find a different solution like lowering your line or taking out a turn,” Sobers said. “It’s more practical. Hooking up to a neighbor is not a bad approach at all.”

The garden hose bypass works by connecting a hose to the exterior of both the frozen and unfrozen homes. Because the home with frozen pipes has no water in its system, the garden spigot acts as an input rather than an output.

“It doesn’t thaw anything out, but you have running water,” said Commissioner Lynn Anderson. “It goes right into your water system and it bypasses the frozen pipe. When you turn the water on, you’re actually getting water from your neighbor, but you can still run your tub, your toilet and your sink.”

Last year, the city asked residents with frozen pipes to approach their neighbors regarding a hose bypass. The new policy allows the city to bridge the gap between residents and make it clear the solution is on the level.

“The city will open the door. If you don’t know your neighbor, or if you don’t get along with your neighbor, the city will contact them and ask if they will allow you to hook up to their water system,” Anderson said.

In addition to helping put residents with frozen pipes in contact with neighbors who could provide water, the city will make it clear the residents who are donating the water will not be charged extra for their kindness, Sobers said. The policy allows the city to adjust the water bill of a donating resident back to their average use.

“There’s a confidence level that comes when the city knocks on your door and says, ‘I’ll adjust your bill if you give water to your neighbor,’” Sobers said. “Neighbor to neighbor, that can be a hard sell.”

For residents who require repair work for burst or rusted out pipes, the frozen pipe policy calls for the city to contribute half of the cost for work performed in the right of way. The code changes approved Monday make it clear the city will contribute toward any work done in the right of way, even if the damage was not caused by frozen pipes.

“This brings our code in line with the way the city has handled sidewalk repairs,” Sobers said. “If sidewalk is damaged, the property owner contributes half of the cost of repairs. This is a similar system.”

Making code changes to reflect the creation of a new policy is a standard part of working within a bureaucracy, according to Mark Gifford, DPW director.

“We battle this fairly frequently,” he said. “Doing as much as you can to make things work hand-in-glove is important.”

The 50-50 contribution system is good to have in place, but repair work between the water main and private property doesn’t occur often, Gifford said.

“It’s not something we run into that often,” he said. “When you put in a service line to your house, those last a long time in a lot of cases. A lot of them never freeze and a lot of them never break. Putting our best foot forward on the city’s behalf and helping the property owners fix, repair and maintain the line to their home is important.”

 

 

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Posted by Adam Gac

Adam is the Pioneer City/County Reporter, covering government in Mecosta County. He can be reached by e-mail at agac@pioneergroup.com or by phone at (231) 592-8347.

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