Lee and Dorothy Dadisman of rural Nevada are actually thankful for the snow this year – it’s providing them with water while their pipes are frozen and their septic tank is not working as intended.

The Dadismans bring snow into the house in five-gallon buckets; they let it melt, filter the water through a kitchen strainer and use it as needed around their farmstead, heating water in a kettle for bathing.

"It’s probably easier for us than it would be for younger people," said Dorothy, 77, about their situation. "We grew up carrying water and using an outhouse when we were younger."

The warmth of the community has shone through these bitterly cold temperatures in the Dadismans’ time of need. An email was sent to members of Colo’s United Methodist Church one morning explaining the situation, and by the end of the day, the church had collected over 50 jugs for the couple to use for water collection and storage. People in the community offered the use of their washers, but Dorothy prefers to head into Nevada to do several loads of laundry at once.

The Dadismans have lived at their address for over 40 years, but their septic problems began this winter. The couple added a bedroom onto the home in the spring of 2012, forcing them to move the septic tank to a different location. Their home’s wastewater now must travel further from the house to the tank. Despite 2013-14 only being the system’s second year in use, the Dadismans have already had to deal with more issues than they have in previous winters. They think that, because of the long distance between their house and the septic tank, the pipes do not stay warm enough to allow for the required amount of movement.

Story County Environmental Health Department Director Margaret C. Jaynes said that septic tank freezes are a widespread problem this winter – not just in Story County, but across the entire upper Midwest. The daunting problem stems from the dry soil, an early deep freeze in December without snow cover for insulation, and the extreme depth of the frost. Jaynes noted that this is the first time in her 20-year tenure that her department has fielded more than a handful of frozen system calls. Frost levels are around four-and-a-half feet in compacted areas like driveways or areas without vegetative cover. Jaynes has also heard from a local septic system contractor and grave digger who has had to thaw grave sites for the first time in nine years. The soil in Story County also prevents rural homeowners from digging their septic lines deep enough because of the possible negative impact on groundwater.

Story County’s Environmental Health regulations, according to Jaynes, are as follows:

Story County Environmental Health enforces the state regulations specified in Environmental Protection (567) IAC Chapter 69 Private Sewage Disposal Systems. Code restricts the depth of installation to a maximum of three feet, but further restricts the laterals to a minimum of 3’ above the limiting layer (seasonal water table). Because of the glacial lain soils creating a shallow groundwater table in our county, the average depth of laterals is two feet. All of Iowa must adhere to these requirements, as does Minnesota, Wisconsin, and many other northern states. These regulations are in place to protect groundwater quality.

As for the Dadismans, their only option right now is for their septic company to pump hot water through the system until the ground thaws – and to use their house’s heat to melt snow.

"If we didn’t have electricity, we’d have to move out for a little while," notes Lee.

Steps to Take

Here are some steps rural homeowners can take to help weatherproof their septic systems (Story County Environmental Health):

• For systems that are five years or older, routine pumping is very important to keep systems working properly. When the tank is pumped, your system will be inspected for signs of build-up; slow running lines freeze faster. Lines can be jetted for optimal performance. Contact a professional pumper.

• Check your plumbing to make sure there are no leaks. A toilet that runs constantly dumps a slow trickle of clean water into the septic system that freezes faster than brown and gray waters.

• Insulate your lines, box and tanks with straw, mulch, vegetation (let it grow longer in the fall to trap snow), and snow fencing.

• Avoid long periods of inactivity. Spread out hot water usage.

• For new installation, avoid late fall installations, add insulation (blue board) to your box and tanks

• Install a septic heater

• If you experience a frozen septic system, contact an Iowa licensed septic system professional immediately to identify the cause of freezing and provide relief. Some contractors operate steamers and high-pressure jetters to thaw system piping.