Thursday, October 23, 2014

Frozen Water Lines....A "golden opportunity" to plan

On our last post we shared some information including sample policy language and a waiver on thawing frozen lateral lines.
 In the depths of the cold last year many cities felt pressured to make a decision on thawing lateral lines.  Some cities, and some contractors that a city might have recommended, used electric welders.  Some of the claims that came into the League specifically from using electric welders included:

* Fire damage to the home
* Damage to electrical appliances
* Stray current causing electrical equipment damage to neighboring properties
* A power surge that damaged radio systems equipment on the water tower
* Stray current that damaged phone lines

Here’s some comments from the head of the League of Minnesota Cities' property / casualty department.

Brian Pulczinski…… The P & C claims department received several frozen water/sewer line claims this past winter.  A city is obligated to exercise ordinary and reasonable care in the construction, maintenance and inspection of all utilities, including its water distribution system.  If the city fails to exercise ordinary and reasonable care in this area, OR if they respond to an occurrence inappropriately, the city could be found negligent and a third party may be able to recover damages. 

In the vast majority of these frozen water/sewer line cases, we found that most of the frozen lines were caused by an Act of God/Nature – unprecedented and unrelenting cold weather that caused frost to go deeper into the ground than ever before and deeper than the city could reasonably have anticipated occurring.  Generally speaking, the city is not negligent in these situations and not responsible for damages to a third party.  For the few cases we found negligence, most of these involved some type of action the city took when responding to the frozen lines (i.e. – using a welder to thaw out a frozen water line, causing a fire at a residence home).  

Here in the Loss Control department at the League we’ve identified two pieces of equipment that are specifically marketed to thaw frozen lines if your city/entity makes the decision to attempt to thaw frozen laterals (see previous post for some guidelines).  The “Hot Shot” The Hot Shot  distributed by General Pipe Cleaners and The Magikist Pulse De-icer.

Last year retailers ran out of equipment to sell due to the heavy demand across a wide section of the country.  Now is the time to make purchases and/or make arrangements with neighboring cities to share this equipment. Keeping in mind that it is just as cold for people in the neighboring city as it is in your own!  For that reason it is important to make note of where there were freeze ups in the past.   

Next up we’ll talk about some helpful hints to post on your city web page. 

Friday, October 17, 2014

Frozen Water Lines....... Take 2 ???

Last winter brought unprecedented cold deep into the mid-west causing water line, sewer line and water tower freeze ups.  While the trees are still a blaze of red, orange and gold now is the time to consider some “golden rules” about informing your residents and business owners on what they can do to lower the possibility of a freeze up in their lateral water lines. 

It’s also a good time for policy makers to contemplate what another hard winter might bring.  In the next 3 blogs I’ll share comments from our Property/Casualty Claims department and the head of the League’s Research department.  I’ll share a sample waiver and ordinance for water line thawing from our Loss Control Risk Management Attorney and provide links to a couple equipment resources with which we at the League are familiar. 

Now is the time for policy makers and department heads to make some decisions about how the city will address such things as letting water run to prevent freeze ups, or having city employees thaw lateral lines.  Here are some considerations from the head of the League of Minnesota Cities’ Research department.

Jeanette Behr….
Reducing utility bills due to constantly running water:
If your city is again faced with residents having frozen water lines and asks residents to run water, please consider adopting a policy before reducing utility bills. Decisions made pursuant to a policy protect the city. Tax dollars must only be spent for public purposes. In theory, if a city asks some residents to run water to protect city infrastructure, the city may be able to reduce the charges accordingly and still meet the legal test that tax dollars be spent for a public purpose even if there is some private benefit to the individual resident.

Consider noting in the policy and council meeting minutes that running water in residences or businesses in certain parts of the city protects city infrastructure from expensive freezing and breaking. (It's best to target those areas of the city that have a history of freezing lines to limit the amount of water and tax dollars used.)

As a counterargument, many cities do not reduce utility bills for residents. Last winter, many cities chose this approach.  Still, these cities provided helpful information on city websites about ways residents could prevent frozen water lines and noted that the cost to run a small amount of water is much lower than paying to thaw out frozen lines

Thawing resident's lines (lateral lines)
The same questions come up if a city is thawing lines that are a customer's responsibility. (Let’s call these lateral lines.) If a city council decides to provide line thawing services, again, consider adopting a policy.  (See sample waiver and policy below.)

For example, if it's hard for your city to identify where lines are freezing, it may justify using tax dollars to help residents thaw out their lines. Document these concerns in meeting minutes and provide some evidence of frozen city water mainlines resulting from lateral line freeze ups if you can. 

Also, if the city is looking at multiple frozen lines in numerous houses there may be a general health, safety, welfare concern in having so many residents without drinkable water. It's best to work with the city attorney and get a written waiver from the property owner if your council feels it's necessary to send public workers onto private property to thaw frozen lateral lines.

Next up we’ll discuss claims caused last winter due to the use of electric welders.  

by Cheryl Brennan


(Frozen Water Laterals)


I, ____________________________________ (“Owner), am the owner of the residence located at _________________________________________ (Property Address),  ___________(City)  Minnesota (the “Property”).

As a result of cold weather conditions, the lateral water lines (the “Lines”) located on the Property have frozen.  I have requested the City of __________________________________(the “City”) for help in thawing the Lines.  I understand that the repair or thawing of the Lines is NOT the responsibility or obligation of the City of ______________________________________(the “City”).    I have, however, requested help from the City to thaw the Lines.  THE PURPOSE OF THIS WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND HOLD HARMLESS AGREEMENT IS TO ASSURE THE CITY THAT IT WILL NOT BE HELD RESPONSIBLE FOR ANY DAMAGE, DIRECT OR INDIRECT, THAT I, THE PROPERTY OR ITS CONTENTS MAY INCUR, NOW OR IN THE FUTURE AS A RESULT OF THE WORK THE CITY PERFORMS ON THE PROPERTY IN THE COURSE OF ATTEMPTING TO THAW THE LINES.

I ACKNOWLEDGE that the process or procedure to be used by the City to attempt to thaw the lines, which may include the use of_________________________(name of equipment used), involves risk of damage to the Property, and that the City does not assure me or make any representations to me that damage will not occur to the Property or its contents as a result of the process or procedure used to attempt to thaw the lines.  The risks involved in the process or procedures that the City may use to attempt to thaw the lines include, but are not limited to, fire losses and claims for damage of any kind to buildings, appliances, electronics, etc.  I hereby represent that I am willing to accept all such risks, and to protect the City from such claims that may be made by me or others.

 I FURTHER ACKNOWLEDGE that the City will not assist in the thawing of the Lines unless this WAIVER OF LIABILITY AND HOLD HARMLESS AGREEMENT is signed by me and delivered to the City prior to the City performing any such work on the Property. 

IN CONSIDERATION for help from the City to thaw the lines on the Property, I agree as follows:

I HEREBY RELEASE the City, it’s employees, officials and agents from any and all claims for damages that I or the Property or its contents may sustain or incur now or in the future as a direct or indirect result of the City’s attempt to thaw the lines, and I hereby waive any right of claim I may have, now or in the future, against the City, its employees, officials and agents as a result of any such damage that may result from that attempt.

I AGREE that neither I nor any other owner of the Property or its contents will make a claim, sue, or otherwise assert rights against the City, its employees, officials or agents for damages claimed to have resulted from the City’s attempt to thaw the lines.

I AGREE TO DEFEND AND HOLD HARMLESS the City, its employees, officials and agents from all claims, suits, judgments, damages, losses and expenses, including reasonable legal fees and costs arising in whole or in part from the work performed by the City in its attempt to thaw the lines. This waiver of liability does not waive liability for any injuries that I obtain as the result of willful, wanton or intentional misconduct by the City or any person acting on behalf of the City.



SIGNATURE OF OWNER:_____________________________________ Date of Signature ______



Sample 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.