The cost of thawing frozen pipes has gone up for the winter season, rising from $150 on weekdays and $250 on weekends to $300 and $400.
It’s because last year’s record-breaking winter required the water utility department to do 558 thaws.
“Every two hours we’re thawing costs us about $500, so last year we estimated we spent well over a quarter of a million dollars, just in thaws,” said Tom Roeser, water superintendent for the city.
This year the department has performed just two thaws, but Roeser expects that number to start rising, soon.
“I’m anticipating they start coming in shortly here, that they’ll start snowballing,” Roeser said. “It’s hard to say, I’d imagine we’ll do 200 thaws this year.”
An average winter can bring anywhere from a handful of thaws to the 200 Roeser is planning for, but this year could bring just about anything.
“I would say this winter has been colder than the past few, except last year,” Roeser said. “Honestly, I think 200 is a worst case scenario.”
On the bright side, Roeser said after last year they are ready to deal with a higher-than-average number of thaws.
“I think we’re a little better prepared, we do have a running water list that’s active right now,” Roeser said. “I believe customers are much more alert to the problems that come with frost.”
That list can be found at city hall, and those who feel they should be on the list can make a request to the water utilities department.
There is a trade-off between what the city is responsible for keeping thawed and what the customer is.
“We have the underground thaw, which happens somewhere between the customer’s service, or customer’s meter, underground, and our water main,” Roeser said. These underground thaws are where the process gets expensive, requiring specialized equipment and specialized workers like welders and electricians.
“Sometimes it just occurs in the basement of the home, if it’s not heated or insulated or properly winterized,” Roeser said. “It’s the customer’s responsibility to keep those areas winterized.”
For underground thaws, the first one if a freebie, but the city can’t afford to do more than that.
“I don’t think people realize how expensive it is,” Roeser said.
This year we’ve gotten lucky, according to Roeser, because of the relatively warm weather at the beginning of winter and the early snowfall, which he said helped insulate the ground early on. But that luck may not continue.
As of Jan. 13, frost levels in Rhinelander were between three and four feet, which is where shallow freezes start to crop up.
“We try to keep utilities at about five and a half to six and a half feet deep,” Roeser said. “You rarely get frost levels that deep, except for last year.”
But not all of the utilities in town were put in under the current stringent regulations.
“Normally the ones we do on the warmer years are fairly shallow utilities,” Roeser said. “I don’t think it was regulated quite as well back then.”
Though costs are going up and frozen pipes are anticipated, the number of thaws will be an average one, and this winter isn’t looking to bring the excessive costs of last year. However, Roeser still recommends customers do everything they can to prevent unnessary risks.
“Winterizing the basements is a big deal… If the basement’s not heated, heat tape on the pipes and meter, that helps. They make foam insulation for the pipes, but ideally you’d like heat tape underneath that too,” Roeser said. “I would say this is a fairly typical Wisconsin winter.”