Deep freeze: Temperatures keep the plumbers busy

(Photo by Dion Ogust)

With the Catskills in a deep freeze since before Christmas, local plumbers are working overtime to restore frozen and sometimes ruptured pipes in homes and businesses. For some people, this problem is a major annoyance. For others, it’s a crisis.

On December 30, no water was running from Kara Herdman’s faucets in Phoenicia. She and her fiancé went to the crawlspace under the house with a hair dryer and a torch and eventually thawed out the pipes. They left water dribbling from the taps to prevent further freezing, but two nights later, “our boiler just popped and started spraying water everywhere,” she reported. “At 2 a.m., we were trying to get all of this done, thaw out and replace a pipe. The next day another pipe broke. It’s been a constant battle of thawing and fixing. Now I have no running water because we don’t have a part to fix the boiler.”

Without heat or water, Herdman has been borrowing space heaters to keep up the temperature in the boiler room and in the house, where heat is essential for her 11-month-old baby. She buys gallons of spring water from the market down the street. Money is tight, so she’s worried about hiring someone to fix the boiler, and with pipes freezing all over town, she fears it will take days or even weeks to get a plumber.

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She’s tried heat tape, a heating element that wraps around a pipe and plugs into an outlet to keep the pipe warm, but it hasn’t worked. Because of damage from the last flood, cold leaks into the crawlspace. “You come to a standstill when you run out of money, and the longer you wait, the worse it’s going to get,” she said. “At least we’re not alone. We feel like we’re living in Little House on the Prairie times, hauling water. But people are coming together to help us.”

Note, however, that Geoffrey Hanowitz of Woodstock Plumbing does not generally recommend leaving an unattended heater under the house. “Space heaters can be dangerous,” he observed. “Open electric heaters can start a fire, so you have to be careful.” Far infrared heaters with a tip-over switch are safer, as are sealed electric heaters that resemble old-fashioned radiators. When Hanowitz has to heat up pipes, he uses a heavy-duty propane appliance that works fast. In many cases, he applies heat tape, but he recommends using only UL-approved tape with stainless steel braiding around it. “The braiding is like a mesh,” he said, “and animals can’t chew into that. Animals like the heat. There are always mice droppings around any kind of heating device.”

Margaret Owen of Boiceville found herself without water the day after Christmas. “It’s happened before,” she said. “Usually the pipes freeze for a while, even a day, and then they’ll thaw and be fine, since the weather warms up. This time it’s never warmed up. I didn’t know what to do. I have no money, and the friends who usually help me were away.”

When she had dinner with friends and told them her problem, they called a plumber and paid for an evaluation of the problem. He took two hours to thaw out the pipes, and Owen gave him money she had saved up for her next mortgage payment. “By 5 p.m., I had water,” she recalled. “I did the laundry, and by 10, it was frozen again. I called them, and they said, ‘We don’t guarantee it.’” The next day, the plumber returned, insulated the pipes, and bought materials to make a wood enclosure. Owen emptied out her bank account to pay him. Now she’s keeping the heat high and the water running, measures that will also cost money. “Every morning, I wake up worried I’m not going to have water,” she said. “I listen for that tap dripping.”

Businesses hit, too

Businesses have also had pipe problems. At an inn in Pine Hill, pipes froze up, and a three-inch sewer line froze solid. In Woodstock, the toilet and sink are not working at the Golden Notebook bookstore. Since owner Jackie Kellachan bought the store in 2010, she’s never had frozen pipes. Co-owner James Conrad said the problem appears to be outside the building and “would cost thousands to repair at this point. We’ll close the bathroom and hope the pipes don’t burst, until we get a thaw. Nearby stores are letting us use their restrooms. The severity of the cold just hit something.”

Norm Magnusson said he’s had frozen pipes several winters running in his house in Lake Hill. “The pipes are in the crawlspace under house,” he said. “I insulate it better every year, but when it gets really cold, if the water’s not kept flowing, the pipes will freeze. This time, I wasn’t there, and they froze solid. One of them burst.”

Magnusson said heat tape has worked on other pipes, but this line is at the far end of the crawlspace. “I don’t like confined spaces or spiders,” he confessed. He taped a blowdryer in place over the pipe, switch set to “on,” connected to an extension cord he can plug in when he needs the flow of hot air. This time, the blowdryer was not enough.

Hanowitz came over, and after thawing the pipes, capped off the burst line, which carries cold water to the kitchen. The other fixtures in the house are working, and Magnusson figures he can live without that one line until spring. Then Hanowitz will come in and devise a more permanent solution, rerouting the pipe to a location that can be kept warm more easily. “I do still leave the faucets running,” noted Magnusson.

Eye on the pipes

On the bright side, Amy Rosen of Chichester has a success story. When she first bought a bungalow as a summer home, she was warned she would have to invest in modifications if she wanted to stay there in the winter. Over the course of several years, she winterized bit by bit. The house, built in 1939, stands on piers, so she added a skirting and insulation, as well as insulating and heat-taping the pipes. Each fall, she would drain the pipes, until two years ago, when she decided to move up full-time.

Just at that point, the main line leading into the house developed a leak. During the excavation required to fix the leak, she heat-taped that pipe as well. Last winter, she had no freeze-ups, and this winter, all has been well. “When I went away over Christmas, I had a friend check on the house,” said Rosen. “I’m not going away at all right now.”

Current weather reports predict subzero nights, off and on, through at least Wednesday, January 10. We’d all better keep an eye on our pipes.

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