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The smell of money
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Jim Strongitharm (left) prepares to inject hot water into a frozen septic tank at a house outside the town of Esko. The lack of snow has led thousands of septic systems to freeze in Minnesota. Strongitharm is working overtime every day this month. (MPR Photo/Chris Julin)
It's been a tough winter for people who depend on snow to make money. But the lack of snow has made it a banner year for other businesses. People who thaw out septic systems have more work than they can handle.

Duluth, Minn. — Folks who live outside of town can't hook up to the city sewer system, but their toilets and bathtubs have to drain somewhere, so they have septic systems. Waste water from the house runs through a pipe to a big tank buried in the yard. Water flows out of the tank into the ground, and the other stuff stays in the tank. Friendly bacteria break it down.

But during a winter like this, when it's cold and there's not much snow on the ground, frost can go down five or six feet. Then the water has nowhere to go, and the septic system backs up. No more showers. No more flushing the toilet.

Then it's time to call someone like Rich Borg.

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Image Rich Borg is taking lots of calls

"Everybody's got trouble," says Borg, as he hangs up the phone in his office. He throws his hands in the air. "Everybody wants service right now, and it's just like, 'Yikes!'"

Borg runs Midway Sewer Service just outside of Duluth. He's been in this business for 24 years, and he's never seen a winter like this.

"We've been running three vacuum trucks pumping tanks probably 12 or 14 hours a day, six days a week, and then running light on the seventh day, trying to get some of our guys some rest," he says. "But it's been crazy."

Borg says this is no joke.

If it's yellow let it mellow. If it's brown, flush it down.
- Rich Borg's old-fashioned advice for people with frozen septic tanks

He says people are being forced to spend money they don't have. It can cost hundreds of dollars to get a septic system thawed out. And if the system can't be thawed, someone has to pump whatever liquid they can from the tank to make more room. In some cases, that has to happen every week.

"I just had a family of five call me on two different phone lines, asking me how fast that tank's going to fill up," Borg says. "Now, I know they're going to fill it up in six days. I'm telling them if they're conservative, they might make it 12 days. They're going spend $150 pumping that tank every 12 days."

Borg says has a ready list of ways to be "conservative" with a septic system.

"The motto is: if it's yellow let it mellow, if it's brown, flush it down," he says. "Showers, you know, you've got to go to the 'Y.' Do your laundry down the street. Visit Grandma and grandpa more often. Visit those relatives and play cards at their house until everyone's unloaded and then go home."

Borg says some people decide not to get their septic system thawed, and they take a do-it-yourself approach. They just pump their own tanks out into the woods.

That's not what Eino Lahti did. He's had Rich Borg's crew out to his house three times this winter.

Eino Lahti and his wife live in the country outside the town of Esko. They've spent $1000 on their septic system this winter, and they're doing what they can to keep it from overflowing again.

"The only thing that goes in there is the dishwater and the bathroom toilet," Lahti says. "We have an outside sauna which we go to a couple times a week, and our laundry water, we have it going outside on the ground. So we're in real good shape as far as that's concerned."

The Lahtis have lived in their house since 1947, and they've never had the septic system freeze before. A few miles from the Lahti's place, Jim Strongitharm was trying to thaw out a septic system this week. He works for Midway Sewer Service.

"Right now I'm getting my jetter ready to go, and clean the tank out with hot water," Strongitharm says as he unfurls 100 feet of black, rubber hose from the house to the septic tank.

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Image Reaching into a septic tank

The hose carries hot water to the frozen septic tank. Strongitharm fires up a gas-powered compressor to put more pressure in the hose, and he attaches the "jetter." That's a little nozzle that shoots a stream of hot water.

Strongitharm lies face down in the two-inch deep snow and sticks his arm down into the septic tank up to his shoulder. He threads the jetter into the pipe that dumps waste water into the tank. The jetter creeps up the pipe, spewing hot water and melting ice as it goes.

As warm water pours into the septic tank, a familiar odor fills the air. If you ask Strongitharm if he gets used to the smell, he puts on a quizzical look.

"What smell?" he asks.

Strongitharm says it might take 20 minutes to thaw out this tank, or it might take four hours. He never knows. But as soon as this tank is working again, he's got another one to tend to.

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