Without a snow blanket, calls of frozen septic systems are beginning to multiply after January's cold snap.
Tony Fyle, Honey Wagon owner/operator, said a trickle of calls is turning into a flood. He said those who have area homes they only visit on the weekend may want to stay at their full-time home and residents should run more warm or hot water to stave off problems.
At issue is the warmer than normal December followed by a colder than average January. The combination melted the 4 inches of snow insulating the ground in the lakes area and then had enough punch to push frost levels down to shallow pipes.
Fyle, whose family has been working with septic systems in central Minnesota since before 1955, said most of the pipes in question are 3 feet below the surface. Last year, the issue was such a prolonged and relentless cold, the frost was some 8 feet deep and capable of freezing city pipes. Many residents ran a pencil-thin stream of water for weeks on end to help keep pipes from freezing. This year, the freeze threat is confronting rural residents and weekenders.
"There is just no way we can give them enough service on Saturday," Fyle said. "We are going to run out of manpower and equipment."
Fyle started getting calls three weeks ago with one or two or three customers. Then three began calling in a day.
"Now it's really crazy," Fyle said. "We almost can't get same day service to most of our customers."
The Honey Wagon covers an area from Pine River to Fort Ripley and Crosslake to Pillager. Fyle estimates he's had 50 calls already for frozen septic systems.
The last time the lakes area had a rash of frozen septic systems came in other snow-drought years in 2003 and 2005. This year is reminding him of those days when thawing a septic system may mean being on a waiting list for weeks.
Unsuspecting weekenders then arrive and when they start to run water, it turns into an interior flood.
"If they don't need to come up, don't come up because things are going from bad to worse pretty fast here," Fyle said. "I'd just like to see some people avert a crisis by not coming up to check on their place. Or walk in and don't run water."
For residents, Fyle recommends running warm and hot water more frequently. Options include running the dishwasher more frequently, taking longer hot showers or at least using warm water for clothes washing.
The warm December followed by rain and a cold January was about the worst thing to happen in terms of septic systems, Fyle said. And it came after it appeared a normal snow depth for winter was on target, meaning some people who may have put down insulating straw or septic blankets may not have done so.
If the lakes area gets more snow, Fyle said the ground could thaw from below.
"If we don't get more snow and it gets cold, it's going to get worse," Fyle said. "The ones that are working today are going to be freezing by Feb. 1."