There is a problem lurking and oozing beneath the lakes area's frozen tundra.
It is already changing how many residents manage their daily lives. The culprit lies underground beneath feet of frozen earth. Relief will not arrive until spring.
Frozen septic systems.
A nearly snowless winter and frigid temperatures are combining for an unusual year. Minnesota winters are supposed to offer enough snow for an insulating layer above septic system drain fields.
Not this year. Calls this week to septic system cleaning services met with the steady tones of busy signals.
"I'm swamped, even my system is froze up," said Dale Jindra, Brainerd Lakes Sewer owner and operator.
Jindra received call after call on his cell phone even as he pumped a septic system holding tank just north of Brainerd along Highway 25.
Jindra said the frost has been down five feet to six feet or more depending on the area. With a good snow cover, he said the frost typically may be one foot or two feet deep.
For those with systems that are still working, preventative measures may be taken. However, experts say there is no guarantee. Hay or leaves could be used as a ground cover. But a critical part of the drain field still may be left unprotected.
"It's hit and miss," Jindra said. "The damage is pretty well done."
Jindra said he has been getting calls about frozen systems on and off all winter. But the backlog began just recently. As a sole operator, he's been working steadily, visiting seven or eight problem systems in a day and getting home long after dark.
The spring thaw is the only true relief. Until then, residents with frozen systems are faced with conservation techniques. They take laundry to city Laundromats. They do dishes by hand instead of using dishwashers and they unplug water softeners.
"Anything you can do helps," Jindra said.
The Pauls on Perch Lake are just beginning an altered way of life where they use cups of water to brush teeth and wash dishes in a basin. Dr. David Paul has been in the area about 22 years and said he never witnessed this type of situation. Paul's drain field froze a few days ago. He has not been able to get service to his home yet as septic system maintenance operators are crushed by an ever expanding demand.
"It's very tough getting these guys," he said. Once a problem is recognized it may take days or more than a week to get a holding tank pumped.
Paul heard of others having problems and first noticed his own when a little sump pump designed to take care of a small amount of fluid in the basement stopped working. That it would freeze was not so surprising. But a week later when his wife was washing clothes, he heard the sump pump going on and water sloshing back instead of leaving. That evening the system began to back up in the basement.
During the wait for service, life can become fairly primitive and there are even thoughts of chemical toilets for the interim. Long, hot showers, running water and flushable toilets become impossible to use in the beginning and conservation is a must once the system is reduced to the holding tank, which is likely to hold about 1,500 gallons.
"It will be a long winter," Paul said. "It will be a way of life for the rest of the winter."
Once a drain field freezes, the waste matter begins to back up. Holding tanks have to be pumped on a regular, even weekly basis. Conserving water use will help. Residents are advised to keep an eye on a holding tank and check it daily a week after the tank is pumped. Costs for tank pumping are in the $95 range.
Some homeowner remedy suggestions included building a giant bonfire atop the drain field to thaw the ground. Jindra said he has heard from a few homeowners who were going to try that. He said it could work with a few big ifs. The fire has to be kept going until the drain field is thawed. Then he said straw or hay could be placed on top as an insulating layer.
"It's going to take a big fire," he said. "It's going to take awhile."
While the heat could push the frost deeper, the thawing process will be creating water that could just be refreezing.
For those with systems that are still working, Jindra said there are not a lot of preventative measures people can take.
"If you are working, just keep using (the system)," Jindra said. "If you cut back too much you won't have enough going through the system. If it's working, keep using it the way you are and cut back a little."
If residents are going to be gone on a mid-winter trip, Jindra said they may want to have someone come in and fill a sink with hot water and let it drain just to keep water moving through the system.
Leaving the home this winter does not mean the drain field will freeze, but Jindra said the chances for a problem are good, especially if people are gone for a long period of time.
The winter of 2003 has septic system business operators looking for a comparison. Jindra spoke with his father, who has 30 years of experience in the Milaca area.
"He said as far as he can remember this has been the worst."
A winter in the early 1980s may have been similar from lack of snow this far into the season, but the weather was warmer, Jindra said. "This is just a bad year."
And depending on the forecast, the phones may keep ringing at septic system maintenance offices.
"We have to wait until it thaws until these systems start working again," Jindra said, adding he sounds like a broken record when he talks to homeowners. "Hopefully we won't have a bad year like this again any time soon."
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