Meadville Tribune

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January 24, 2014

Local plumbing, heating companies offer tips to protect homes, businesses in subzero temperatures

Workers do best to keep up with busier-than-normal schedules

The weather outside is still frightful for local plumbing and heating companies reporting a greater influx of weather-related calls as a result of this month’s subzero temperatures.

Plumbing and heating companies are struggling to keep up with the rush as they aid home and business owners trying to keep the deep freeze away from their pipes and reducing the taxing toll it puts on their heating systems.

Rick Watson, owner of Tool City Plumbing in Meadville, said his company’s sales rose 35 to 40 percent in just two weeks — and the work hours match it.

“I don’t like it, working in 14 below weather, but we do it,” Watson said. “Whatever it takes.”

Frozen pipes and heating issues made up the majority of this winter’s calls, he said, coming mostly from trailers and houses with stone basements.

On Thursday, Watson repaired a frozen pipe in a Meadville residence with a water hose still connected to an exterior faucet. The hose had apparently frozen, thawed and burst.

“Don’t leave your hose attached outside in the wintertime,” he said. “The water in the hose freezes all the way into the house. And that’s not below freezing, that’s in general. We see a lot of these in the wintertime.”

Because the resident didn’t have a valve isolating the exterior faucet, the whole house’s water supply had to be shut off until repairs could begin on the connecting pipes.

“Heat tape doesn’t work after zero (degrees or lower),” Watson said. “And it doesn’t work alone. (Pipes) need to be well-insulated.”

The subzero temperatures in particular are what cause the real problems, leaving buildings without running water or even heat, according to Gary Egli, project manager for Deeter Plumbing and Heating in Cochranton.

“Between a severe cold spell and a normal just-maybe-below-freezing-but-not-below-zero-type weather, we get two to three times the calls,” Egli said. “We had to turn people away or tell them it would take a few days to get there.”

When it comes to plumbing incidents, the lack of heat takes precedence over pipe bursts, Egli said.

“No heat gets service first,” he said. “Sometimes people get upset with us, but you can survive if your water froze. You can’t survive if you have no heat in your house.”

Outsourcing projects

Recent problems aren’t the only issues, according to local plumbers, some of whom have even tried to outsource calls to other contractors for fear of falling behind.

“I know my plumbers have been awful busy trying to repair frozen stuff from a week ago,” said Tom Campbell, heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) technician for Jones Plumbing and Heating in Meadville. “I think (they) were just beginning to catch up with what we couldn’t refer other people to. And then it got cold again.”

Jones Plumbing received more than 90 calls in two days, most of which required heating repairs, according to Campbell.

“Whether it’s a furnace, boiler or whatever, the heating equipment is working to capacity so there’s really nothing you can do,” he said.

Heating systems can become overburdened in subzero temperatures, Egli agreed, urging home and business owners to be proactive and get their systems serviced and cleaned to maximize efficiency and reduce the chance of breakdown.

“If you’ve got a boiler system, don’t do a setback,” Campbell said, warning against the long-term effects of temperature reduction to save on energy bills. “Supposedly there’s a percentage you save for every degree of setback on the thermostat.”

When returning from a setback, however, a boiler must put a proportionate amount of heat into the radiators to warm the air. The greater the setback, the more heat is pushed and efficiency is lost, according to Campbell.

“Your heating equipment has to work overtime to recover, working on the principal of thermal mass,” he said. “It’s better to pay National Fuel or Penelec or whomever a little more than to reap the costly repairs.”

Watson and Egli advised taking a similar attitude toward pipe-burst prevention, saying it’s better to spend a little more on the water bill than have to call a plumber to make a repair or replacement.

“I always tell people to leave the water running,” Watson said. “It saves them in the long run and saves us from having to come out and fix the pipe in 14-below weather.”

They also recommended sealing up any cracks around pipes and reducing exposure to cold drafts, which can make pipes freeze quicker. Also, make sure pipes are well-insulated, even if it means individual insulation around certian pipes, they suggested.

“Make sure the air can’t get to it,” Egli said. “If you know it’s really bad or if you have a bad spot, let (the water) run just a little bit — hot or cold.”

Plumber tips

Local plumbers and heating technicians offer the following advice for home and business owners looking to avoid pipe breaks and heating breakdowns during the winter months.

Keep out the cold — While many pipes are laid inside building insulation, holes can let in wind and cold drafts, making pipes freeze quicker. Attics and crawl spaces can also create a wind chill effect. Insulating sleeves can be purchased for at-risk pipes at hardware and plumbing stores, and caulking can be used to seal any wall cracks leaving pipes exposed to the cold air.

Let it drip — A slightly open faucet will not guarantee freeze prevention — few things, if any, can — but it greatly decreases the risk. Opening a faucet releases pressure that can build up from ice blockage in the event of a freeze. Without the pressure buildup, there’s no break. Only run water in pipes susceptible to freezing. Plumbers agree the potential cost of repairs outweighs a slightly higher water bill.

Leave the heat up — Many home and business owners turn their heat down at night or other times throughout the day to save on energy costs. Most heating systems, however, must overcompensate when returning from a setback, causing a strain on equipment and increasing the chance of breakdown. This sometimes leads to the loss of heat altogether. Heating technicians side with plumbers on this one — it’s better to pay a little more for heat than pay a lot more to fix a system.

Unhook the hose — Remove any exterior water hoses during the winter months. The cold air can freeze water from a hose all the way into a building and lead to an indoor pipe break. Most homes can isolate and cut off waterflow to exterior faucets. Plumbers advise doing so to reduce the possibility of a breach.

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