Frozen pipes make plumbers flush

Cold snap presents homeowner challenges

Posted: Friday, January 09, 2009

The cold snap means brisk business for those who can fix pipes that froze and burst. But few plumbers are willing to do the thawing.

"Yes ma'am, but it's going to be maybe Sunday at the earliest," said Clair Eversmeyer of C & C Steamway Services, primarily a carpet cleaner. "I've got a waiting list of 22 people."

Cameron's Plumbing and Heating dispatcher Julie Dyar said Thursday her company was busy thawing pipes, too.

"Winter's always a very good time to be in the plumbing and heating business," she said.

Temperatures dipped below zero in Juneau for a few days this week but were expected to warm up today as it started to snow. Temperature highs were predicted at 31 degrees today, according to the National Weather Service, with up to 28 inches of snow.

The cold snap prompted the city to issue a warning about frozen pipes, suggesting residents keep taps running to prevent it.

The city offers a thawing unit for outside pipes, at a price. Five other plumbers said they didn't thaw pipes, and Jack's Plumbing and Heating office manager Keith Burgess explained why.

"It's a bad insurance issue," he said.

Putting heat in the crawl space is dangerous. It takes a long time, and it requires constant baby-sitting. Ultimately, it's not worth it, he said.

Dyar said health and safety requirements means thawing pipes is a two-person job, which makes the labor more expensive.

Eversmeyer said pipe-thawing starts at $250 and depends on the time, which has ranged from 45 minutes to 18 hours. The price is higher if sewage is involved.

Pipes can be tricky to thaw, and even professionals aren't always successful.

That was the experience of Dave Depew, who said the city once tried thawing outside pipes at his former Valley residence.

"The sidewalk was smoking, and all the grass burned, but they couldn't thaw the pipe," he said.

"Don't try to do it yourself," warned Mahlon Greene at the Alaska Division of Fire and Life Safety.

But he knows lots of people thaw pipes themselves anyway.

So if they do, he'd like them to know that an open flame is not a good way to go.

"Most people, when they go to thaw out pipes, they kind of go to the extreme," said Juneau Fire Marshal Dan Jager. Instead of a small heater or a fan, they go straight for the blowtorch.

That can work - but too well, causing a smoldering fire that isn't noticed until it spreads. Or heat may carry down a metal pipe to a nearby combustible.

Even a little heater can be dangerous. Juneau firefighters put out a fire Tuesday night that was caused by a small electrical heater that was intended to keep water pipes from freezing. It caused an estimated $20,000 in damage.

Jager said the best layman's way to thaw pipes is to turn on a warm-air heater outside and blow warm air underneath the home.

A hair dryer, if plenty of air space is kept between it and the pipe, might be good, though it can still overheat, Greene said.

A related cause of fires is improperly installed heat tape on pipes, typically at trailers. It's not supposed to be wound around the pipe, and it's not supposed to be covered with insulation, but sometimes it is.

Heat tape caused four home fires in the last six months in Juneau, Jager said.

Depew now lives in a wind-sheltered trailer on North Douglas near Eaglecrest, with slumping insulation and chronically freezing pipes. They have frozen twice so far this year.

He's tried almost everything to keep the pipes from freezing, and then to thaw them again. Almost.

"I grew up in the days of Farrah Fawcett, but I never actually had a hair dryer," he said.

Thursday morning, he used a blower to move warm air from elsewhere in the house, thawed the pipes, came into town for his usual slice of apple pie. All part of the winter routine.

• Contact reporter Kate Golden at 523-2276 or

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