Dickinson's pipes 'Let it Go': Frozen temperatures cause widespread water line breaks

Fire department responds to 24 incidents in 4 days; damages range from minor to extensive as aging infrastructure and human error identified as primary causes.

A pipe froze and burst at Dickinson High School Dec. 21.
Contributed / Jeff Brandt
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DICKINSON — In recent weeks, several buildings in Dickinson have experienced water line breaks due to frigid temperatures. The Dickinson Fire Department responded to 24 incidents involving fire sprinkler system breaks from Dec. 23 to Dec. 27 alone, Deputy Fire Chief Mark Selle said.

“Most of them were just because of the extreme cold and heat not being at proper levels,” Selle said. “Whether the heating systems went down for various reasons or cold air blowing in, a door left open because snow kind of wedged it open or freezing pipes in entryways, it was just the extreme cold and not having a break in that cold snap that really caused some havoc.”

He said damages resulting from the pipeline breaks ranged from minor to extensive.

“Quite a few breaks that we had, the water damage wasn't bad, but the frozen pipes in the ceilings were quite extensive,” Selle said.

Many of the incidents involved unoccupied apartments, at least one of which was due to an open window, he said.


“A tenant in a building left a window open and was gone for a long period of time and froze up the pipes which ended up flooding her apartment and the apartment below,” Selle said. “So that was quite extensive, you know all their belongings were wet, there were electrical issues and things like that. We had another one where the heater went out in a restaurant and they didn't realize it wasn't working. It froze all the pipes and sprinkler systems.”

Selle said the fire department expects to respond to a handful of sprinkler freeze ups in subzero temperatures, but that 24 incidents is extreme. Scott Focht, owner and manager of JP Steel in Dickinson, said a portion of their sprinkler system recently froze and cracked at the business.

“It was during business hours so we were able to shut the water off right away,” Focht said. “So it wasn't so bad for us but if it would've happened overnight it would have been horrible.”

He estimated damaged woodwork, carpet cleaning and sprinkler system repair would cost just over $1,000. He said the water line that was damaged was relocated, which should prevent a recurrence.

Dickinson High School has had three water lines break and leak during recent freezing temperatures.
Contributed / Jeff Brandt

Other buildings experienced frozen water lines that were not related to fire sprinkler systems. On Dec. 21, Dickinson High School students and staff had to reroute their day around a water line break at the student affairs entrance of the building. DHS Principal Jeff Brandt said the pipes that burst and flooded areas of the school were due to extreme cold and an aging, water based heating system.

“All the systems in our school are original to the original construction of the building in 1968 and we've had some issues with heating and frozen pipes,” Brandt said. “So that happened the last day before Christmas break. And then over break, similar issues happened in a couple other entryways of the school building.”

There have been a total of three breaks in two different buildings on the DHS campus this school year, he said.

“We had to reroute students through an alternate entrance, which kind of was a challenge throughout the day, but everybody responded really well,” Brandt said. “Staff responded really well. Students responded really well. Our custodians did a great job. They worked their butts off to make sure that everything was functional.”


The leak also forced the school to keep the heat off until the system could be repaired, he said. Although the temperatures were frigid that day, the building stayed warm enough and they were able to get the heat running again fairly quickly, Brandt said.

“One of the challenges with the heating systems that we have is a lot of the businesses that manufactured parts for this system are either out of business or closed and finding replacement parts for a lot of our systems is not an easy task,” Brandt said. “We've had other heating issues, with the heat going out in the vocational building – the yellow building on campus – and then some other heating issues with our pods. You could go in one classroom and it's 60 degrees and the one next door is 88 degrees. Regulating the temperature in those with our heating system is a challenge.”

The recent leaks are part of a much larger problem, he added, saying many components of the school need to be updated in the next five to 10 years. In the meantime, staff are doing what they can to keep more issues from arising.

Dickinson High School has had three water lines break and leak during recent freezing temperatures.
Contributed / Jeff Brandt

“We're trying to keep the inside doors of the entryway open so those systems in the entryway don't freeze up and they receive the heat from the building,” Brandt said. “There's other issues with that, as far as heating the entryways too, but we're trying to make sure that that doesn't happen again.”

Sierra Ridge Apartments in Dickinson had three water lines break during the cold snap due to frozen lines, said Tara Smith, assistant vice president of marketing for Sterling Group, which manages the property. One was a minor leak due to a frozen sprinkler system and the other two were water lines in apartments that were not involved in the fire suppression system. Since the leaks were found immediately, there was minimal damage, she said.

“We didn't have to displace anybody and we were able to get in and do the drywall repairs,” Smith said. “We did replace somebody's carpet for them and replace their baseboard for them, but they opted not to leave for that.”

She said maintenance staff offered to stay onsite during the storm to handle any situation that came up.

Selle pointed out that sprinkler systems make a huge impact on fire suppression. He added that until sprinkler systems are replaced after breaking, the building is much less safe than when it has an operational fire suppression system.


“Sprinkler systems always seem to get a bad name because they cause damage like this,” Selle said. “But really the damage wasn’t caused from the sprinkler system, the damage was caused because of the cold which broke the sprinkler system.”

He recommended keeping heat on, even in unoccupied spaces and insulating water lines that are susceptible to cold. If heat goes out in a building, the fire department can help drain sprinkler systems to prevent the system from freezing and breaking until heating systems can be repaired, Selle said.

Dickinson High School has had three water lines break and leak during recent freezing temperatures.
Contributed / Jeff Brandt

Ashley Koffler is a Killdeer, North Dakota native and Dickinson State University graduate, with a Bachelor’s Degree in writing, and minors in journalism and psychology. Formerly working in Community Affairs for Roosevelt Custer Regional Council for Development, her reporting focuses on the Dickinson city government, community features, business and agriculture — among others.
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