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.

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