Underground frost stops up water lines in Fairbanks

Posted: Sunday, March 25, 2007

FAIRBANKS - A record late-season cold snap and one of the lowest snowfalls in more than a century in Fairbanks is driving frost unusually deep underground, freezing septic and water lines and triggering a rush for services at pumping and thawing business.

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Russell Lynn, co-owner of Bud Hilton's Pumping and Thawing, said this winter has been one of the worst in the 30 years he's been in the business.

"The last time I saw it this bad was the winter of 1988-89, when we had all those cold temperatures," said Lynn. "I think this may have that beat."

Business is so backed up at Fairbanks' pumping and thawing companies that customers are being told they will have to wait for days, or even weeks, before their lines can be thawed.

"We're at the end of the winter and the frost line has really gotten down there," said Lynn. "I've heard about people with (underground) water tanks that are frozen solid. Septic tanks are freezing.

"I can't keep up. It's never been like this and I've been doing this for 23 years," said co-owner Dana Krause, who also serves as dispatcher at Bud Hilton's.

Lynn said the company has been completing 20 to 25 jobs a day, but that only covers a third of the calls that have been coming in daily.

In the past few weeks, passing motorists have offered to pay double the $100 an hour rate, but Lynn explains that there is a waiting list and gives them a number to call.

Snow usually acts as ground insulation but this winter only a thin blanket of 26 inches had fallen as of Tuesday, the fourth-lowest total on record to date, according to meteorologist Don Aycock at the National Weather Service in Fairbanks. Normally there is more than 5 feet of snow on the ground at this time of year, he said.

Record cold temperatures have worsened the ground frost problem. The period from Feb. 12 to March 20 was the coldest on record, according to Aycock. The average temperature was minus 13 degrees Fahrenheit, about 17 degrees colder than normal.

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