Big chill bursts pipes and heats up business for plumbers

It is a chilling tale of winter, one that in ghost-story fashion begins with a sign that all is not right. Maybe there's a damp spot spreading ominously across a wall, or faint sounds that grow louder and more insistent.

"I heard water dripping," Liz Simon-Higgs of Baltimore said, "but mostly what I heard was my water meter spinning."

Similarly, Kacey Gaige heard the tell-tale sound of water on the move in her Severna Park home, "but I wasn't running the laundry." As she headed into her garage to pick her kids up at school Thursday, the source of the mystery sound was revealed.

"Oh, an ice skating rink," she said of the water that had spewed from a broken pipe onto the garage floor, freezing in the unheated space.

Throughout the area, the record-breaking cold has caused water pipes to freeze and burst, unleashing rivers of water that panicked homeowners rush to stop.

"I was just turning valves," Gaige told Stephen Tant Jr., a plumber who had arrived Friday afternoon to fix her pipes.

Tant, who works for Len the Plumber company, began sorting through a complicated set of pipes, spigots and knobs running along the wall of the unheated garage. Water had apparently frozen in one pipe, causing it to separate at the point where it had been soldered to another length of pipe.

Like other plumbers in the area, Tant, 28, has spent much of this frigid spell heading from one winter-worn pipe to another.

"We've never had unbearable cold like this," he said. "We were just catching up from the last cold spurt, and now we're back into it again."

Tant had just left a rowhouse in Southwest Baltimore where an outdoor spigot connected to a garden hose froze and cracked, sending water cascading down outdoor steps and a walkway to the street, where it froze into a thick sheet of ice along the curb.

"Those are the ones that freeze the most because it's exposed to the outdoors," Tant said of the hose bib — plumber-speak for the outdoor spigot. He replaced it with a frost-proof one and sealed the opening in the wall to prevent air from flowing through and perhaps freezing the indoor pipes.

Picking his way through the basement and into a tiny space, he put a new valve on the pipe leading to the hose bib and soldered the parts together. Then, the moment of truth: turning the water back on to make sure the fixes held.

And still, the job was not done. Tant, who had been carefully putting paper booties on and off as he went in and out of the house, got down on his hands and knees to give the kitchen floor a good wipe down.

He feels for his customers, some of whom are in tears when he shows up, or are so grateful for his work that they'll make him dinner or offer him pie.

"You can have a bad day, and you remember that," Tant said, "and it picks you right up."

Plumbing companies throughout the area say they've been inundated with calls all month — and there have been repeat customers.

Jen Hinderliter, who lives in Glen Burnie, called Honest Abe's Plumbing Heating and Cooling on Friday for her second cracked pipe of the month.

A military wife, she and her husband moved into their circa 1923 bungalow about six months ago, having scoured the area for the kind of historic home that she loves — despite what can be aging or not-well-insulated water pipes.

"The first pipe, in what I think is a converted porch, burst during that time when it was cold, then it was warm, and then it was cold again," Hinderliter, 37, said. "That one still is not fixed because they wanted to wait until it got drier and warmer, and it's never gotten drier."

With that pipe out of commission, Hinderliter, the mother of 2- and 4-year-old children, had to do the dishes down in the basement. There, she noticed some leaking, and her second cracked pipe.

"Hopefully," she said, "this is it."

Honest Abe's owner, Abe Lazar, said one exacerbating factor this winter has been the wind.

"The wind gets in the cracks of the house and freezes the pipes," said Lazar, who started his Northwest Baltimore company three years ago.

Lazar said he was actually busier earlier this month, when the first frigid spell swept through the area and his phone was ringing as often as 200 times a day.

"Maybe people have learned a lesson," he said. "We're not as inundated."

Ron Lopp, the dispatcher at Abbott's Plumbing in Elkridge, said he's been fielding 10 calls an hour at times.

"Everything is overbooked now," he said. "The first freeze started it, and it hasn't stopped since."

Brian Marvel, who owns Forster Plumbing in Lauraville, said many older homes weren't built for the kind of extreme cold that comes only sporadically to this area.

"They're drafty, they were built when energy costs were minimal and they're not very well insulated," said Marvel, whose family-owned company has been in business since 1888. "If you have a crack in the foundation, and the wind gets in there, or people make additions and run water piping in an exposed area — things happen."

Horror stories abound — everyone seems to know of someone who had cascades of water flooding into a house, even collapsing the floors.

Simon-Higgs, who lives in South Baltimore's Riverside neighborhood, hadn't noticed the problem initially because the water had gushed into a crawl space below the rear of the house and only later started seeping slowly into the basement.

"On Thursday, my husband had noticed the water pressure was low in the shower," said Simon-Higgs, a teacher who now stays home with her 1- and 4-year-old kids.

After hearing her water meter spinning wildly, she saw the leaking in the basement. Luckily, she said, a plumber came within an hour, found a couple of broken pipes and repaired them. The couple then had a heat lamp installed to keep the pipes warm.

Now they're awaiting their insurance company's estimate on the damage — something they've been warned may take a while with all the claims agents are juggling.

Doug Waire, a State Farm insurance agent in Dundalk, advises clients to prepare for cold weather by learning where their water main is located.

Water gushing in your home "can be really scary," he said. "It's coming out quickly, and if you don't know where those things are, it can really make you panic and cause a lot of damage."

Waire said he has seen many calls this winter from people whose pipes for outside faucets — those used for hoses — have frozen. He recommends turning those off for the winter.

People should take photos of the damage and then begin their cleanup, he said. And those going out of town should keep their heat on and ask a friend or relative to check on their home.

Many residents were caught off-guard by the cold, coming as it did after a couple of mostly mild winters.

David Wesolowski of Wes Plumbing, Heating and Cooling said this year's cold-related plumbing problems are the worst he's seen in about two decades.

"We've got one where all the radiators are busted," said Wesolowski, whose business in based in Perry Hall. "You only need one break in an entire house to render your whole heating system useless."

Many problems are "things that can be avoided with just a few minutes of time," he said.

"The No. 1 thing you can do when they're calling for single digits is shut your water off at the main," Wesolowski said, adding that people should also turn the heat up a few degrees while they're gone from the house, and open cabinets to allow heat to circulate near the pipes.

And even then, said Tant of Len the Plumber, sometimes you will still end up with a burst pipe.

"You really can't say what Mother Nature is going to do," Tant said. "I've seen joists that were insulated, pipes that were insulated, and it still happens. Or all the abandoned homes in the city, their pipes will burst and flood, and it's the neighbors who suffer."

At Gaige's home in Severna Park, he sets about fixing the water pipe that leads to the outdoor hose bib. He removes 541/4 inches of copper pipe — there's some corrosion on the existing one — and replaces it.

"Now the fun part," Tant said, firing up his soldering torch to weld everything back together. At least for now, at least at this house.

"I tell my customers," he said, "a house is a never-ending project."

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