U.S. Water News Online
RICE LAKE, Wis. — A cold winter that's pushing frost deeper into the ground has Rice Lake officials asking residents to keep water running to prevent pipes from freezing.
The city has asked its 3,400 water customers to leave at least one faucet open with a small stream until further notice — a move that will waste an estimated 4 million gallons of drinking water by spring, utilities manager Scott Reimer said.
“We don't like the idea of letting the water run in a wasteful way, but the alternative to this is if pipes freeze underground, people could be without water for the rest of the winter,” Reimer said.
Letting faucets run instead of spending millions of dollars to move or insulate pipes is “the lesser of two evils,” he said.
About half of the past 20 winters have been cold enough that the utility asked for faucets to be turned on continuously, Reimer said. Last winter, it took the same precaution.
At Mayor Dan Fitzgerald's home, a laundry room faucet is open allowing “just a little stream of water” to flow, said the mayor's wife, Bernadette Fitzgerald.
“It is a little weird, but it's something you got to do in the winter time,” she said. “It saves money in the long run.”
The water utility picks up the cost for the running water and does not charge customers, Reimer said. He estimated the continuous flow would cost the utility about $700 this winter.
The 4 million gallons flowing down the drain is about 1 percent of the city's annual water usage, he said.
Bernadette Fitzgerald said she understands the utility's reasoning and doesn't think the practice is wasteful.
“If we don't have a real cold winter, they haven't made us do it,” she said.
About a dozen pipes have frozen so far this winter, Reimer said.
City crews used an electrical current to thaw a frozen water line at Praxair, a distributor of industrial gases and welding supplies. The company now has a bathroom faucet running nonstop, manager Ted Biver said.
“Once we run the faucet, that is the end of (the problem),” said Biver, who also has a faucet open at his home.
A homeowner could pay up to $10,000 to bury water pipes deeper or dig down and insulate them to eliminate the risk of freezing, Reimer said.
The open faucet request went out last week as frost levels neared 6 feet deep and may not be lifted until late March, Reimer said. Pipes buried 8 feet deep generally are considered safe from frost.
The utility manager did not know how many customers complied with the request to run water, but he said he hoped at least half would.
While most people might never have a problem,” we would rather be safe than sorry,” Reimer said.
Julian Zelazny, executive director of the Wisconsin Land and Water Conservation Association in Madison, said he had never heard of an entire community being told to leave faucets running.
“It is counterintuitive to water conservation, that's for sure,” he said.
But doing it occasionally to mitigate a potential disaster probably doesn't make a big difference in the long run, Zelazny said.
“Maybe the community can strike a deal with everybody,” he said. “If they leave their water running to avoid freezing, they will also go back and fix the leaky toilet and the dripping faucet so that there is no waste that way.”
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