Widespread frozen pipes expensive problem

The unusual winter weather here in Salida has revealed a freezing problem that cannot be ignored. More than 10 percent of our water customers have suffered with frozen water lines and meters. This problem was unintentionally created by not installing meters and lines deeper in a warmer environment. This was a cost savings at the time but long term it has created a very expensive problem to rectify. We can’t change the past but we can be proactive for the future.

I have been in contact with many agencies including the Colorado Rural Water Association. Other cities have had problems this year. However, we seem to have the award for the severest problem this year. Most deal with this problem as it arises and they hope for warmer weather in future years. I believe we can do better than this. A policy governing water use in the winter for keeping lines from freezing would be best off decided in advance. We need to work out a cost effective approach that will provide a reliable solution for both the customer and the city water department.

Why is Our Water Freezing?

As we all know, water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Our outside water plant was built buried with the idea that we don’t experience the temperature drops that other places in the state and country do. That exuberance over our normally warm winter climate in this great valley works most years, I have been told. But this year is an exception.

Our water will freeze if the meter and lines are not deep enough. With 10 percent plus of our customers freezing, we can assume they are not deep enough. The only heat they get is from whatever heat is given off by the water passing through the system. Very often anecdotal evidence of what causes or cures the problem only confuses the situation. Not everyone has the same soil around their pipes, giving a different “R” value. Some of the pipes are shaded and the ground has a frost deeper and freezes faster than a neighbor whose service line is in the sun. In essence there is a mini climate that changes in almost every location.

Many people do not understand the situation. If the sun comes out and it is in the high 40 degrees, they consider the problem over and don’t run their water or they don’t consider this to be their problem ,relying on the city to fix this any time day or night. Another complication is that we have a lot of absentee owners. They are not here to run their water or deal with the problem. It is common for them to come to town on the weekend only to find they have no water.

The Public Works Department has, in the past, not worked on the customer’s side of the meter. Some Colorado cities do not work past the curb stop. Some cities achieve lower water bills by giving less service to the customer. None of the local plumbers are equipped with the needed devices to thaw the insides of the pipes because this does not happen often enough in our area for them to realize a return on investment in equipment. It is my understanding that we have had freezing experiences such as this, but maybe not as bad. Once the problem is over, traditionally the problem is forgotten until it comes up again.

Another consideration is that water rates are based on winter use. This penalizes the homeowner who is responsibly letting his faucet run to avoid freezing.

Let’s Work Toward a Solution

Reinstalling a system with 3,000 plus customers is cost prohibitive. The cost would be passed on to the system subscriber and would raise the water bill to an unacceptable level. The water bills are already high enough. We can and should look for grants, and we will.

I don’t think we should continue to build onto the system the way we are now. It should be up to the City to decide where a meter is installed and in what specification. The new NRC building is an example of new construction that we should be able to put the meter in a service room.

We have to find a way that we can allow the customer to use water when the frost drives deep in the ground. We are lacking data as to when the problem starts or stops. We don’t know the frost depth with any reliability. If there was known data at the time the service lines with the meter pits were installed I believe the lines and meters would have been placed deeper.

We need further information about frost depth. I propose that we install at least three frost-depth gauges in various places in the city. This would allow us to know when we have a problem and allow for customers to run water to maintain service.

We Need Frost Depth Gauges

No entity builds, sells, distributes for use, a frost depth gauge. Many years ago, the NOAA local office in Sullivan, outside of Milwaukee, developed a gauge used extensively. It is proven and the parts are available from any good hardware store. Cost is probably around $100 each and we can build them in our shop. I have attached a set of plans.

I believe an educational campaign to let our customers know how we are dealing with the problem will also help fix the problem.

For Discussion, Let’s See about this Approach

  1. This summer, install frost gauges.
  2. Start an educational campaign.
  3. Decide that we are going to allow the water to run during the deep-frostcycles.
  4. Change the way any future construction is allowed in regard to watermeters. (Change the city required specifications)
  5. Allow and encourage the property owners to bring meters to a warmenvironment at their own expense, unless we can find grant funds.
  6. Come to a water-use plan for the City of Salida. We need discussion onwater use in the City. How much are we trying to encourage conservation?


Bob Salmi,

Public Works director


The Citizen is happy to provide a forum for comments and discussion. Please be civil, truthful, and relevant. Please suggest removal of comments that violate these standards. Real names are appreciated.

3 Responses to “Widespread frozen pipes expensive problem”

  1. Julie Mach

    What would be the estimated cost to a homeowner to resolve this problem (i.e. new/improved meter, lines buried deeper, etc)? And would the city or private contractors need to be involved in installation? I would be interested in making this investment if I knew it would prevent the headache of a frozen meter (both for me and the city) and avoid the wasteful solution of running my faucets all winter. Thanks to the City for their rapid response to this issue and efforts to find a long-term resolution to the problem!

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    • Bob Salmi

      Julie, thank you for your comments. To try to answer your questions, we need to first change the City code to allow the change. We will be taking this up with the City Council Soon in the future. Bob

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  2. Lisa Bova

    I would also like information on installing the meter in my home when and if that becomes available. We were out of town when this happened and a friend who was checking on our house noticed water seeping out of the meter and luckily the crew was down the street working on other meters. We are not around usually in January when it seems to be the coldest and so turning water on is not an option for us. Also in an area where water conservation should be an issue, it is very wasteful to run your water for days on end. I hope we can come up solutions for this!

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