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Outdoor workers battle the cold

With the onset of extreme cold temperatures, many workers in the area are fortunate to have jobs that keep them in a heated building or car, but that is not the case for some workers.

Lee Bundy is the facilities operator for the city of Backus. His responsibilities include city streets, parks, water systems and sewer systems. He spends much of his winter in a vehicle or out in the cold.

“We put up decorations for the winter. We also plow and shovel snow to keep the parking lots open, so when it’s winter we don’t get to sit inside. We keep going,” Bundy said.

Bundy and his crew sometimes go out three times during a single snowstorm to keep up with plowing and shoveling.

“We call ourselves out. If we get more than two inches of snow, and it depends upon how it’s going to fall, we usually go out at 3 o’clock in the morning,” Bundy said. “We try to get the streets cleared and the parking lots cleared.”

To clear the streets entirely can take up to eight hours.

Bundy and his crew also spend time outside in the cold checking city sewer and water lines when residents call. On Dec. 16, Bundy and crew members worked hours in the cold to replace a local lift station pump.

“You’ve got to take your time, and when you get cold you’ve got to go sit in the truck and warm up a little bit. You just have to watch for safety. You have to watch for traffic so they don’t run you over, and you have to watch how cold you’re getting,” Bundy said.

Ted Strand, director of Crosslake’s public works department, has also had lift station issues. The recent sub-zero temperatures have caused him problems.

On Monday, Dec. 9, he found himself working on a lift station for the city’s sewer system at 1:30 in the morning. It was so cold that the system’s computers were failing and the station wasn’t working properly. The heater it has just wasn’t keeping up, he said.

“Somebody’s got to do it so you just dress accordingly,” Strand said.

An automated system calls his phone whenever there’s a malfunction on the sewer lift stations. If the station hadn’t been fixed, sewage could have backed up into a home, Strand said.

But fixing the station was no easy task.

“It’s tough to do anything with gloves on,” Strand said, offering similar advice as Bundy: “You just have to work a little, then go warm up. You just have to work smart in it.”

So far he’s had three calls from three separate lift stations that weren’t working properly because of the cold.

The cold also affects the city’s snowplows. The hydraulics that lift the plow blades up and down don’t work as well in the extreme cold temperatures, and diesel fuel can gel.

There are additives that are put into the fuel holding tanks to help keep the fuel from gelling, but Strand said that even those don’t work well if it gets too cold.

The salt the city puts down on the roads doesn’t melt the ice in low temperatures, Strand said. The city and county have to wait for a warm-up in order for the salt to take effect. In the meantime the department scatters sand, but Strand said it often bounces off the ice.

John Monnier, wastewater supervisor in Breezy Point, said the department waits until spring as much as possible to do outdoor work, but when they do work outside they always bring extra gloves and clothing.

In low temperatures, private septic systems are also at a risk of freezing, said Rick Smith, owner and president of Northland Septic.

Smith said freezeup calls are common, especially during cold winters with little or no snow. On top of that, they can be called at any time.

“Most of the work we do in the winter time is for emergencies. It’s not necessarily for maintenance, so a lot of the times we’re dealing with people who are having a problem,” Smith said. “We get called out at any time or weather condition, so we have to be prepared for anything. We have heated valves and things like that on our trucks to try to keep the freezing limited on our vehicles, but winter is hard.”

During cold snaps, water lines, septic lines and septic tanks can freeze, and Smith’s crew must then use pressurized hot water to fix the problem. To make an already messy job worse, this work can rarely be done in the comfort of a heated home.

“I would say that most of the lines we open we can get open within one to two hours. It’s almost always done outside,” Smith said.

Outdoor workers agreed that being prepared is key.

“We dress in layers, dress in a lot of clothing and try to be as safe as we can,” Smith said.