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The Polar Vortex

Contractors battle stupid-below-zero weather

Jan. 10, 2014
No-heat calls and frozen pipes predominated. Contractors brought vehicles indoors or plugged in core heaters. Repairs of old equipment create opportunities for replacement sales in the months ahead. Sprinklers froze and burst at the University of Massachusetts and, in Nashville, residents unused to such cold weather reported hundred of frozen pipes. Temperatures below -10°F can cause sidewall air intakes to freeze over.

CHICAGO — Plumbing and heating contractors across the northern tier of the country had to contend with the Polar Vortex the week of January 6th as temperatures plunged well below zero at the beginning of the week, accompanied by enough snow to make driving hazardous. Malfunctioning heating equipment, frozen pipes and panicking homeowners were the most common problems.

“It certainly spiked service calls,” said Mitch Zych, general manager of Air.Water.Energy. in Carol Stream, Ill. The contractor had to deal with heavy snow in Chicago over the weekend followed by extreme cold Monday and Tuesday. Because the bad weather was forecast with plenty of notice, A.W.E. held a customer service meeting to prepare its people and to arm them with advice for homeowners.

Two easily fixable problems were clogged filters not allowing proper airflow through a furnace and ice and frost sealing the sidewall air intakes and exhausts on sealed combustion equipment. That happens when temperatures dip below -10°F, Zych said. The contractor also dealt with panicky homeowners calling not because their equipment was malfunctioning but because it couldn’t keep up with the heat loss.

Sales opportunity

Zych said their customers wanted problems fixed rather than replacing equipment, so the contractor is planning a call night where they will match up service tickets with older equipment, buy some pizzas and have the sales staff spend an evening calling customers pitching replacement sales. They will give homeowners partial credit for what they paid for the repair toward the cost of replacement equipment.

Zych said A.W.E. would only answer emergency calls during what was dubbed “Chiberia,” because the roads were hazardous. The installation trucks were brought indoors nightly and core heaters were plugged in for the service vans. The contractor also held morning safety meetings and managed to make it through the week without any injuries or accidents.

Frozen pipes, no heat

“Usually when we are hit with these extreme low temperature periods the phone starts ringing almost immediately and that was the case this time,” said CONTRACTOR columnist Eric Aune, Aune Plumbing, Zimmerman, Minn.

“We usually field calls both for frozen plumbing pipes, water and drains, along with many no-heat calls,” Aune said. “It's hard to be completely ready for the added workload but when the forecast calls for a solid three days or more I will stock up on a few extra circulators, zone valves and verify the availability of a few boilers locally. I keep my pipe-thawing machine at the ready and never let the service truck cool down.

“My service vehicle has a diesel engine,” Aune noted, “therefor keeping it warm with a topped off tank is a must in anticipation for events like the ‘Polar Vortex’. We're pretty used to the cold here in Minnesota. I tend to complain about it more and more each year but I know my contractor friends in other areas have it even worse. Rocky Pavey in Fairbanks, Alaska, knows all too well what working through extreme temperatures is all about.

“I have had to turn down three or four calls each day for the last week,” Aune concluded. “There just is not enough time in the day. The phone has been ringing at all hours of the night. In situations like this there's no rest for the wicked I guess.”

In eastern Pennsylvania, CONTRACTOR plumbing columnist Dave Yates reported that he, wife Lois and assistant Mary were answering three phone lines ringing constantly. Overflow phone calls went to the answering service, which, in turn, sent F.W. Behler Inc., a constant stream of fax messages.

Indoor 'waterfalls'

“Managing our crews and ensuring all customers got service was challenging,” Yates said. “Our on-call techs are running lots of after-hours service. There were lots of no heat calls and calls for heating systems that simply could not keep up. Then came the addition of frozen pipes and today the pipes thawed and lots of leaks showed up. Then we have the houses for sale where the owners turned the thermostats down to save money and moved away leaving the realtor to handle things. We had one yesterday that blew a water line in the third floor and it flooded the house with water cascading down all three flights of stairs. There was another one today (Thursday, Jan. 9) where the ceilings on the first floor collapsed.”

Yates also tackled the expected cracked heat exchangers and busted boilers. Water heaters were stressed by the frigid incoming water temperatures and failed. Next up comes the expected thaw and flooding, so Yates has stocked up on sump pumps.

In central Massachusetts, The Republican newspaper, reporting on the website, reported that sprinkler heads had frozen and a hot water line had ruptured on the University of Massachusetts campus in Amherst, flooding several buildings. The Holyoke, Mass., fire department also reported that sprinklers had frozen in the Holyoke Mall.

In the Nashville area, the Tennessean newspaper reported that pipes froze and burst in the Ronald McDonald House, displacing 17 families. The newspaper also said that Hiller Plumbing, Heating & Cooling had responded to 247 calls about burst pipes and 213 complaints of frozen pipes, according to the contractor’s spokeswoman Lisa Cronin.

Then there's Canada

As bad as it was in the northern U.S., it was worse in Canada.

“The weather has been brutal this year — unseasonably cold, and I heard we have had more snow in Calgary to this point in the year than we have seen in over 100 years!” said Jamie Whitehead of Cooper Plumbing & Heating, Calgary, Alberta. “I have been fortunate that we have not had trouble with any of our trucks (knock on wood), but there have been a lot of slow downs due to the traffic issues that the snow and ice cause. It can be pretty significant if you add an hour or two on to each of four trucks' travel time when the guys get paid for it but can't bill for it. It also creates challenges with keeping a schedule when the weather slows us down. Every extra hour spent driving is an hour taken away from a job.”

Whitehead has experience exactly the type of sidewall venting problems that A.W.E.’s Zych talked about.

“I have seen a sharp increase in problems with sidewall-vented, high-efficient appliances,” Whitehead said. “We always try to run our venting through the roof, as I have run across far fewer issues when we do. With many appliances that get vented out the sidewall, there is an increased chance of freezing the air intake, especially with the weather we have seen lately. With the shorter runs to a sidewall termination, there is more moisture in the exhaust, as it doesn't have a chance to condense and drain back out through the appliance. More moisture plus more obstructions — anything that keeps the flue gasses from getting away from the building, such as fences or stored items — leads to frost or ice-covered air intakes.”

Steve Spaulding also contributed reporting

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