The seasonal alchemy of frozen septics

Aaron J. Brown

Aaron J. Brown is the author of the Iron Range blog

Modern heating technology and time-tested knowhow makes living in Northern Minnesota much easier than it was for our ancestors. Sure, the harsh winter conditions might cause a few angry comments on social media (we get it, your face hurts). True, the cold creates real danger in certain situations, especially if people fail to wear adequate clothing or face other hardships out of their control. Nevertheless, most people survive to enjoy our beautiful summers, repeating the process for approximately one human lifetime.

Life in the North still remains a constant challenge, however. When you live in the country, as I do, you become accustomed to the many natural factors that indicate how basic day-to-day life should be prosecuted. Is it a scarf day? A long underwear day? Are we drinking one pot of coffee today, or two? Pull down the shades at sundown to keep in the heat? I now view the coming and going of winter akin to a military occupation: I call it Winter’s Empire, an orderly force that rises, rules and retreats each year. Frost and starry skies mark the battlefields; birds and muskrats soldier on; frozen lakes boom like cannon.

Every year’s winter campaign is just a little different. I am the hobbled tradesman in the village watching the armies march to and fro. I say that mostly because I can’t skate.

Last year was brutally cold for a brutally long time. We didn’t see record snowfall, but we were a little North of Normal. The water line serving our kitchen sink, which sits too close to an uninsulated pocket along our north wall, froze often, requiring us to take shifts with the hair dryer on a ladder in the basement’s drop ceiling to dispatch the ice. People’s water lines in town also froze because the plowed roads and sidewalks provided no protection from the wicked cold. As winter continued, a final crush of snow fell, then eventually, thankfully, blissfully melted.

Even though this year is much warmer than last, the lack of snow this winter poses a real danger that rural septic systems like ours will freeze. When a septic freezes, you don’t have a septic. You have drains and pipes leading to the world’s foulest ice cube. Every year the ground freezes, but myriad factors determine if it will freeze deep enough to paralyze our subterranean human infrastructure.

Marshall Helmberger wrote about the state of the frost line in a Jan. 15, 2015 story in his Timberjay newspaper. He writes, “While the situation is not yet extreme, there’s still plenty of winter ahead, and this year has the potential to rival the winter of 2003-04, when the majority of rural septic systems in St. Louis County froze, creating widespread inconvenience for rural residents. At this same point in the winter of 2003-2004, the frost had only penetrated 48 inches, according to MnDOT data, and the frost never reached deeper than 72 inches the entire winter. That year, it was the lack of snow that created the widespread problems with freezing.”

Just think, that harrowing year of frozen septics occurred *before* the 24-hour media freaked the holy-heck out after ever slight deviation from normal weather patterns. It was truly a pre-“polar vortex” world. A winter of widespread septic freeze-outs would surely overwhelm our sensitive modern sensibilities. In any event, even above average January warmth was not enough to cause the frost line to recede. Now, with temperatures dropping, it will begin freezing deeper once again.

I did read that if your septic does freeze, consult with the Minnesota Extension Service ( for tips on how to address the problem. I’ll give you a hint, though: they can all be summarized with “get yourself a time machine and go back to when your septic wasn’t frozen.”

Winter is an ever-unfolding folk tale in Northern Minnesota. Every year the story changes just a little. Here’s hoping your story doesn’t end up with lots of buckets full of colorful detail.

Aaron J. Brown is an author and college instructor from northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. He writes the blog and hosts the Great Northern Radio Show on Northern Community Radio. This piece first appeared in the Sunday, Feb. 8, 2015 edition of the Hibbing Daily Tribune.


  1. Nothing beats burying your line deep and sending out hot water every day.

  2. During the winter of 2007, I think, we lost our water line (permanently) and our septic for 3.5 months. We survived. We made do. I’m just glad there were only two of us in the house that winter. And I’m glad that I didn’t have health challenges. I made the acquaintance of many people at the laundromat. I stopped feeling sorry for myself after meeting people who never had running water, ever.

    I wonder what will happen this winter because my new washer uses very little warm water. There is no way around how that is set, though we could fill our bath tub completely with hot water, and just let it go down the drain.

    We’ll see what happens. We already had to replace two car batteries this winter.

  3. Thanks for sharing. Winter can be brutal, and a septic system is the last thing you want to worry about. Good to have pros on hand who know how to help and who you can pay to do it for you. Speaking from experience, there’s really nothing than trying to DIY any kind of septic system fixes in the dead of winter. Tough stuff.

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