Warming Trend Causes Pipes to Burst, Flooding Homes and Businesses

Updated: 01/10/2014 12:32 PM
Created: 01/10/2014 6:46 AM
By: Jennie Olson

Temperatures are finally going up, which is great news for most of us. But the January thaw is causing pipes to burst all around the state.

Plumbers around the Twin Cities metro have been working through the night to take care of problems. They say pipes can crack when water freezes inside, but it won’t flood until that ice inside melts and the pressure causes the pipe to burst.

Even a small crack can flood multiple rooms of a house in just minutes.

Water flooded the basement of the Union Depot in St. Paul overnight all because of a frozen pipe leading to a sprinkler in the ceiling.

"Water does as much damage as fire," St. Paul Fire Chief Dino Guerin said, adding that the floor is now frozen because of the cold temperatures. “My biggest fear now is this is all freezing; we've already had two firemen fall."

Guerin says his crews have responded to about 150 calls for burst pipes since Monday's big freeze, adding that many of the buildings weren't built with Minnesota temperatures in mind.

"It’s bad for customers, good for business," Jeff Rahn, owner of Benjamin Franklin Plumbing in Hastings, said.

Rahn says his plumbers are working around the clock trying to keep up with this rapid thaw.

"The water inside freezes and then expands, and that cracks the pipe allowing the water to come out once it thaws," Rahn said.

Earlier this week, White Bear Lake Public Works responded to three water main breaks, and officials said the impending warming temperatures could cause more in the coming days.

Crews on Tuesday were working in the bitter cold temperatures from the early morning until 9 p.m. to remedy the leak in the Emerald Drive cul-de-sac that left residents without water for hours.

Mary Helmerick of Public Works said on average, White Bear Lake has about 15 to 20 water main breaks in a year. She said it doesn’t necessarily take a dramatic change like a minus-50-degree day followed by a 32-degree day to cause a break; sometimes-minor change in temperature can cause significant expansion and contraction in the ground, which weakens and sometimes breaks the metal piping.

Breaks are also common during the temperature fluctuations in the spring and fall.

White Bear Lake had 18 water main breaks in 2013, 23 in 2013 and 11 breaks in 2011.

On Monday, Public Works responded to two residential water main breaks, the first on Prairie Road at 9 a.m. and the second on Gisella Boulevard after 1 p.m.

Tuesday’s extra-frozen ground made locating the Emerald Drive break especially difficult for crews, and Helmerick said it extended the time it took to locate the leak. She said the city always uses a leak detection service. Then once the site is located, a city-hired contractor digs the hole and Public Works puts on the pipe clamp.

A contractor has yet to assess damages and provide an estimate, and Helmerick said it can vary greatly for water main breaks depending on how much time it takes to locate the break and how intrusive the digging is.

Helmerick said residential leaks in smaller cities are usually less dramatic than those in larger cities like St. Paul and Minneapolis because the pipes are typically smaller.

Plumber Nate Petersen prepares a pump to shoot water into the incoming city water line, left pipe, that has been frozen Thursday, Jan. 9, 2014, at a south Minneapolis home.
Photo: AP/Jim Mone

Minneapolis/St. Paul

32° | 30°
  • Feels like: 23° F
  • Wind: SSE 9mph
  • Humidity: 82%
  • Sun Snow changing to rain
    36° | 33°
  • Mon Light rain
    38° | 32°
  • Tue Chance of a few snow showers
    33° | 22°
  • Wed Chance of a few snow showers
    28° | 18°