Below ground, below zero

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Below ground, below zero Dr. Convection 3/6/04 4:28 PM

Thursday, March 4, 2004

Below ground, below zero

By BETH QUIMBY, Portland Press Herald Writer

The arctic cold that gripped the region earlier this winter left weeks ago,
but Georgia Basko of Lebanon is still feeling the effects of the deep

She has been traveling back and forth to Sanford to do laundry. All wash
water goes out the back door, rather than down the sink.

Basko is one of a number of Mainers dealing with frozen septic systems.
While the region has been basking in warmer than normal weather recently,
conditions below ground are stuck back in January when a stretch of subzero
temperatures sent the frost line plunging to unusual depths. The problem
appears especially acute in southern Maine where there was little snow cover
to insulate the ground.

Septic company operators and well drillers say they have rarely seen the
frost so deep. And they said those living with frozen leach fields and sewer
lines shouldn't expect a thaw anytime soon.

John Gallant, owner of Stoney Road Septic in Shapleigh, said he has heard of
all sorts of attempts to unfreeze the frozen systems. Jetting hot water or
running a steam machine over frozen pipes and leach fields are popular
techniques, said Gallant.

"There have been very few success stories," he said.

A frozen leach field means wastewater has no place to go. So Gallant has
been pumping out septic tanks for customers with frozen systems in western
York County.

"It's been a crazy winter, unlike anything I have seen in 15 years," said

No one knows exactly how deep the frost is.

Michael Cooper is the service supervisor at the Kingston, N.H.,-based Comac
Pump and Well, with offices in Kennebunk and Sanford, which drills and
excavates all over New Hampshire and Maine. He said the frost had reached 4
feet at a recent excavation in Auburn. A 40-foot trench job in Laconia,
N.H., which normally takes four hours, took several days, he said, because
workers had to punch through 5 feet of frost.

Thomas Weddle, a geologist with the Maine Geological Survey, said the state
does not track the frost line. Normal for this time of year is about 3 feet,
he said.

"I would not doubt that in places it is 6 feet deep," he said.

His office has been getting calls from people having problems with grit and
sand getting into their well water this winter. He said the theory is that
the deep frost is setting off frost quakes - a shift in the ground similar
to fractures on ice - which disturbs the seals of well casings, allowing
silt to get into the pipe.

"This is the first time I recall getting calls about this," said Weddle. He
said many of the calls are coming from southern Maine.

In Lebanon, Basko said she and her husband have been coping but she is not
sure what she will do if the leach field is still frozen in three weeks.

That is when her daughter is due to be married and company is expected to

It was preparations for her daughter's impending wedding that probably
caused the system to freeze in the first place, she said. She and her
husband were away at their daughter's bridal shower for a few days during
one of the cold snaps.

"You have got to keep water moving through the system," she said.

At least two school districts have been dealing with frozen septic systems.
The septic system at Gray-New Gloucester Middle School has been frozen for
about three weeks and many after-school events have been moved to the high

Acton Elementary School, which freed up a frozen system late last week, is
one of the rare success stories.

The situation taught Acton Superintendent Brian Beeler more than he ever
wanted to know about sewage, he said. For example, he now knows the 300
students and teachers at the school produce 6,000 gallons of sewage a day. A
frozen leach field, he said, means the sewage holding tank must be pumped
once a day at a cost of $600 to $1,000 each pumping.

He also now knows that thawing out frozen lines with steam machines does not
always fix the problem.

Beeler eventually met with Acton Selectmen and the Warrant and Finance
committees to explain the $15,000 spent so far on pumping and repairs and to
brainstorm solutions.

"Our decision was we need to dig up our distribution boxes," said Beeler.

The decision was a breakthrough. Although only one of the two pipes leading
to the leach field is open, and everyone has to be careful to keep water
running through it to keep it open, he said it appears the school will be
able to limp along for the rest of the year.

Weddle said the thawing process has begun in southern Maine, and is normally
complete by late April.

"It will make mud season even longer," he said.

The good news is that frigid temperatures are highly unlikely to return
before winter ends, said James Brown, meteorologist at the National Weather
Service in Gray.

Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 324-4888 or at:

Below ground, below zero Vendicar Decarian 3/8/04 4:32 PM

"Dr. Convection" <> wrote in message

> "It's been a crazy winter, unlike anything I have seen in 15 years," said
> Gallant.

Weather is chaotic.  Pushing the climate into a higher temperature regime
can be and is expected to increase the extremities of extreme weather

This is what we are observing in recent weather patterns.

Meanwhile the global average surface temperature continues to climb.