Thursday, February 20, 2014

This issue will be with us for awhile - frozen water lines

Loss Control, Research and Claims staff at the League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust continue to receive phone calls and emails about this issue from members across the state.  Here is a link to a good news article in the Brainerd Dispatch on how a few Minnesota Cities are dealing with frozen pipes.  As I look outside yet another snow storm is making its way through the region.  One thing for certain.  "Old Man Winter" still reigns up here in the Northland!

By Cheryl Brennan

Tuesday, February 18, 2014

What cities may say to residents who have frozen water lines. By LMCIT Loss Control

The continuing subzero cold weather has caused an unprecedented number of water line freeze-ups in some northern states of the country and in many areas of our own state of Minnesota.    Residents are calling city hall for advice on how to handle this issue.

Encourage residents to call a private party to deal with private water lines, sometimes known as lateral lines, running from the curb stop to the home or building. Cities do not generally work on these lines because they are private property and often made the responsibility of the owner by city ordinances.

Electrical welders used for thawing frozen water lines pose risk. Improper thawing of frozen water lines with an electrical welder can s result in some fire losses and smaller property claims for damage to buildings, appliances, electronics, etc. The potential risk of thawing with an electrical welder exceeds the expected benefits.  The Michigan Municipal League does have some guidelines in the event an electrical welder is the only option. Thawing Frozen Underground Water Pipes

Alternative device
There is a commercial electrical product specifically designed to thaw frozen water pipes that LMCIT Loss Control just identified.  The “Hot Shot” distributed by General Pipe Cleaners.  If anyone has used this product please let us know the results.  Hot Shot

Additional information for cities
Take steps to thaw the city portion of water lines only – doing more increases the city’s/utility’s risk of liability due to damages caused by thawing lines.

The best approach is to transfer the risk to another party, usually a fully insured plumbing contractor. The contractor then assumes most of the loss exposure created by thawing frozen water lines.  Require contractors to:
  • Provide certificates of liability and workers’ compensation insurance.
  • Provide a minimum of $2,000,000 in commercial general liability insurance.  The city should be added as an additional insured.
  • Defend and indemnify the city in a written agreement for any claims against the city arising from the contractor’s work.

If the city decides to thaw the municipal portion of the line consider using a commercial product designed for this task such as the “Hot Shot” listed above or a hot water unit such as a Magikist or similar non-electrical means.  The hot water method can take some time to thaw the lines.   In the meantime the city could try to run a water line from an adjacent property until the waterline is thawed.   

If city feels pressured to give advice to property owners 
Consider compiling a list of names of companies that deal with frozen water lines and provide that on the website or in city hall, not as a recommendation but simply as information.
  • You can educate the property owner to be aware of unintended consequences of contractors thawing water lines particularly if using an electrical welder.  Namely fire, explosion, damage to appliances and electronics, and the possibility of damage to other property owners in the case of stray electrical current. 
  • Suggest the property owner determine if the contractor is using a commercial device manufactured specifically to thaw frozen water lines. 
  • Suggest the resident determine if the contractor is insured. 

If the city feels compelled to help property owners thaw their portion of the line have the city attorney draft a waiver to be signed by the property owner.  

If a city wants to develop a policy here is an idea of some points to cover.  Work with your city attorney to draft this policy.  

Definition of service level, priorities of service and procedures for thawing of frozen service laterals.

Policy Statement

1. The City will provide a service of thawing frozen service laterals to owner occupied residences, owner-occupied residential condominiums and owner-occupied co-operative housing. Except as outlined elsewhere in this Policy for City-owned rental or non-profit housing, the City will not provide a thawing service for any other class of property.

2. The City will thaw external water service laterals only, not frozen plumbing inside the residence.

3. The City will respond to calls in order of complaints received.

4. Calls received during regular working hours shall be responded to as resources permit. Calls received after regular working hours will be responded to within sixteen hours of receipt of the call, or as soon as possible after sixteen hours of receipt of the call in the event that other emergencies tie up resources and make it impossible to deal with the thawing request.

5. If a crew is already out on overtime basis when a request to thaw a service lateral is received, the crew will respond prior to going home, unless it is likely that the work will keep the crew out past midnight.

6. There will be no charge to the resident if the property can be thawed without digging, and if it is the first occurrence of the season for the property. A charge of a fee as set by Council, payable in advance, will be made for subsequent thawing services within a single season.

7. City-owned rental or non-profit housing units will be afforded the same thawing service as ‘owner occupied residences’, except that the Department of Building and Property Management will be charged for the full cost of the service. The Department of Building and Property Management are free to employ the services of an outside contractor, if they view the wait is too long for their tenants.

8. [OPTIONAL] The City will use hot water or steam in its thawing operations. The use of electric pipe thawing machines or welding machines is strictly prohibited, and persons using same will be held liable for any damage caused.

9. The City reserves the right to deviate from this policy at any time if deemed to be in the best interests of the City and its residents based on safety, political and economic considerations.  Any deviation and the reason for the deviation shall be documented in writing.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Water Line Freeze Ups - Guidance to Residents

The League of Minnesota Cities Insurance Trust (LMCIT) is getting numerous calls from member cities regarding the large number of residential water line freeze-ups happening across the state.  We have a blog post coming very soon about some guidance regarding the city's response in terms of using a heated water approach or an electric welder or other electric means to clear the lines.  In the meantime we've compiled the information below that the city might offer as education to residents.

Educate property owners on steps to take to keep water lines from freezing or steps to take if their lines are already frozen.   Consider a press release and posting this information on the city’s/utility’s website.  Here is some content to consider:
  • The most likely spot for water lines to freeze is where it enters the house/building.
  • Make sure to clear the area of storage items so warmer room air can reach the pipes.  This may mean removing items from a vanity cabinet or in a utility room.
  • Use heat tape.
  • Use a warm hair dryer.
  • Make sure the roof vent is not covered with snow or is otherwise blocked.  Snow build up over the vent will cause the sewer drain to slow down.  This prevents the warmer air in the sewer system from venting up the house line and keeping the line above freezing.
  • Monitor water flow in the nearest (to the outside) fixture closely.  Run your cold water for a couple minutes and then take the temperature of the water.  If it is below 40 degrees Fahrenheit (Source Minnesota Rural Water Association) as a last resort, you can let your cold water run from this faucet at a pencil thickness.  
    • You should run it non-stop when there is no one home or no water is being used for a period of time.
    • Watch for unintended consequences of sewer or septic backups if running water continuously.
    • If a home's thermostat isn't hardwired and relies on a battery, property owners should make sure that battery is fresh.

The city/utility can determine whether or not to charge property owners for the extra sanitary sewer flow and water consumption.  Ask property owners to notify the city/utility if this method is chosen.

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Step Lively - Winter Ladder Safety

I Know, I know, you've heard this a hundred times before. “Falls from portable ladders are one of the leading causes of occupational fatalities and injuries.”  By Paul Gladen    

Now that winter is here ladder safety plays an even more important role when using ladders. Inattention and unsafe acts that you could have gotten away with during the summer months are exacerbated and can lead to a trip to the hospital or worse. Frozen ground, snow on shoes, ice on roofs….Snow and ice contribute and magnify the hazards that are always there. Not to mention the added layers one has to wear to ward off the cold can contribute to lessened mobility, visibility, grip etc.

Think of the kid lying on his back in the snow and can’t get up due to too much winter wear. That’s us people just a bit taller.  The rule of thumb this time of year is to be a bit more aware of the hazards and be a bit more diligent in setup for and execution of any job, and today the subject is ladders. Let’s revisit the safety tips of ladder use and pound them a bit deeper in to the old gray matter. (This is for me as much as it is for you. Loss control people need reminding too J)

  • Avoid electrical hazards. Be aware of overhead electrical lines
  • Always inspect the ladder prior to using it.
  • Always maintain a 3-point contact with the ladder. (Two hands one foot. Two feet one hand)
  • Always face the ladder while climbing and descending.
  • Only use ladder and appropriate accessories for their designed purposes.
  • Make sure ladder steps/rungs and boots are free of slippery material. (snow, mud)
  • Don’t use step ladders as single ladder or in partially closed position.
  • Follow all instructions on the ladder and don’t stand on the top step/rung as a step/rung unless it is designed for it.
  • Make sure the ladder is on a stable and level surface.
  • Don’t place ladders on boxes, barrels or any unstable base to obtain additional height.
  • Maintain proper angle of a 4:1 height to base ratio.
  • Beware of placement so that the ladder can’t be knocked over by surrounding activities.
  • Don’t exceed maximum load rating of the ladder.
  • Extension ladders must extend 3 feet above the point of support. 

Walk Through Railing System
Getting on and off extension ladders at the top is one of the largest causes of falls and injury. Eighty percent of the ladder-related falls caused by overturning and shifting of the ladder is, according to a National Safety Council Study, due to getting on and off at the top of extension ladders. 

The act of getting on and off could cause the ladder to slip sideways upsetting balance and causing a fall.   A walk-through Railing System could greatly reduce this hazard and make for safer ladder use. Walk-through devices can be added to appropriate ladders and are OSHA and ANSI approved and meets OSHA requirements and standards.

There are other devices that can be added to the ladder to make them
Ladder Base
more stable such as base systems that can increase the base width and accommodate for uneven ground by leveling the ladder.
Ladder Wheel Dolly

Wheel dollies can also be added to eliminate carrying and the resultant strain and sprain injury hazards.

Ladder safety and fall protection products can be found at most fall protection and safety products web-sites. Web-sites such as Guardian Fall Protection, Fall Protection Pros, Levelok as well as others could be a good place to start.