ELKHART — What’s worse than frozen pipes?
How about a frozen lateral waterline somewhere in your front yard or road?
That’s apparently the situation Jeff Coti and numerous other water customers have experienced as winter temperatures continue to push the freeze line deeper into the ground.
Coti and his family lost water service at their home on Miller Drive just west of Elkhart city limits in late January and have been without water service for 13 days as of Tuesday, Feb. 11.
In an effort to find the segment of frozen pipe, he and his father, Joe Coti, plowed most of the front yard and dug up part of the yard with an excavator.
Coti had been arguing for days with city officials over where the clog might be, but now agrees that the frozen pipe is probably under the road and close to the main line.
Homeowners are responsible for maintenance of the water line to the point where it reaches the main line, but Coti said he thinks circumstances where the freeze is under the road should be the city's responsibility.
In the meantime, the city is offering to assist Coti and other customers experiencing frozen laterals by helping tap onto a neighbor’s water line if everyone is agreeable. The temporary connection would not involve any extra fees, and the utility would split the bill evenly between the two customers, said Laura Kolo, the utility services manager for Elkhart.
Kolo said the utility department is aware of about 40 cases in which lateral lines have frozen. Those include business and residential customers inside and outside of the city. She suspects there are more customers who have not alerted the city.
“We're getting several calls a day,” Kolo said.
The cities of Nappanee and Goshen have issued a freeze warning this week, urging customers to let faucets dribble water to prevent freezing. Elkhart has not issued a warning.
Nappanee utility superintendent Gale Gerber said he’s aware of half a dozen customers in town whose laterals froze. All of those customers currently have service. Most tapped into a neighbor's service, he said.
Neither Gerber nor Kolo could recall circumstances this bad.
“One other time in the late '80s, we had a spell where we had some frozen services, but nothing like what’s going on now,” Gerber said. “This is the deepest I’ve seen frost in a long, long time.”
In Goshen, the city has had 10 cases and was able to thaw the lines using a system city workers came up with a week ago, said John Hutsell, construction supervisor for the water and sewer department.
To do it, city workers dig down to the lateral, cut the line and then pump hot chlorinated water into the pipe to melt the ice, Hutsell said.
The fabricated pump is a little crude, he said, but it's working.
A quick flushing of the line is required, though.
Some customers have contacted the city of Elkhart and suggested the main line is frozen, but Kolo said that is unlikely because city main lines, which are larger, are normally five feet underground, Kolo said.
Most affected customers are trying to make arrangements with neighbors, Kolo said.
Coti said late Tuesday afternoon that he contacted a neighbor who is willing to let them tap on and that city workers were expected to make a connection hours later. But that would result in an additional fee because it would occur after normal business hours, he said.
The city of Elkhart acquired the water utility in Coti's neighborhood about nine years ago and some of the records concerning infrastructure are incomplete, Kolo said,
She suspects some of the lateral pipes leading to the street were not installed deep enough to prevent freezing.
The freeze line — sometimes called the frost line — is significantly deeper this winter because of frigid temperatures that have resulted in below zero readings on 18 days this winter in Elkhart County, according to the National Weather Service.
Normally, freezing temps are found about 12 inches below the surface, said Evan Bentley, a meteorologist with the weather service.
But this year, the weather service has documented instances where freeze lines are sometimes four to five feet deep, Bentley said.
He compared the plunging freeze line in the soil to the growing thickness of ice on local lakes.
In recent years, Bentley said, “You might only get six to eight inches of ice, but this year, a lot of the lakes have at least two feet of ice, if not a little more.”
For Coti, it’s been a trying two-week span that included the birth of a son. His girlfriend, Jessica Kyle, gave birth on Friday, Feb. 7. Some of the family has since been staying in a hotel.
In addition to the inconveniences of not being able to shower or wash dishes, Coti said he and his father have lost time from work and incurred the cost of renting an excavator.
"It's been pretty rough," Coti said.