As weather warms, more pipes will probably burst in D-FW

As if a week of bitter cold weren't bad enough, firefighters and other crews have scrambled to save property from ruin as burst fire sprinkler systems and pipes sent water spewing through schools, homes and businesses.

Burleson's new recreation center was shut down after a pipe burst, flooding the building. In the Keller school district, a broken sprinkler head at Trinity Springs Middle School sent water flowing into the office, main corridor and library. At Byron Nelson High School in Trophy Club, a broken fire sprinkler head resulted in water damage to several cameras in the fine arts wing.

At Burnett Plaza, 801 Cherry St. in Fort Worth, water spilled into the lobby from a burst fire sprinkler head near the entrance of the 40-story office tower. The Tim Curry Criminal Justice Center was evacuated briefly Friday when a sprinkler head in the loading dock between the courthouse and the jail froze and burst, setting off an automatic alarm. And a broken waterline in Texas Christian University's Sid Richardson Building shut down access for a time to campus e-mail, networks and servers.

All that -- and much more -- came with the mercury still low. As temperatures rise above freezing this weekend, watch out for many more broken pipes and fire sprinkler systems, city officials say.

"We're anticipating seeing an influx of calls [today] as the thaw comes," Colleyville Fire Chief Russell Shelley said. By Thursday, five fire sprinkler pipes had burst, he said.

As of Friday, Haltom City had had six calls for broken sprinkler systems, including one at Life Care of Haltom, an assisted-living center. "We anticipate it will increase exponentially when the thaw happens this weekend," City Manager Tom Muir said.

Keith Ebel, Arlington's deputy fire marshal, said more problems are inevitable. "You can't compress water," he said. "Once it expands, it becomes an obstruction."

In other words, the ice splits pipes, then melts, and the water flows.

Major damage has been averted in some cases as breaks were quickly detected and cleanup and repairs began. Many fire sprinkler systems automatically signal the Fire Department when water deploys. But if owners of some empty commercial buildings turn off those signals, water can go undetected until significant damage occurs.

That's what happened last year in Colleyville, where no one noticed that sprinklers were on in an empty office building along Texas 26 until a passer-by saw water streaming out the front door, Shelley said.

At Burnett Plaza, the flow of water was quickly stopped Friday, and there was no damage, a building spokeswoman said.

A county spokesman said the break at the criminal justice center caused no major damage.

At the Burleson recreation center, water damage was limited to the second-floor fitness room, spokeswoman Sally Ellertson said. That area will be closed until repairs are completed, she said, although other parts should reopen today.

Rick Lowrimore was not as lucky. He said a pipe exploded Thursday in the unit above his at the Keller Arthouse complex, a mixed-use development with retail and residential properties.

"I knew what had happened when I saw water coming over the balcony," Lowrimore said.

He called for help to get his belongings out before water flooded the apartment. But damage to the ceiling, walls and flooring was so extensive that the apartment had to be gutted.

"Nobody can tell me when it will be restored," said Lowrimore, who is disabled. Arthouse management moved him into another unit while repairs are made.

He said some businesses and other apartments were also damaged but not as badly as his unit. Arthouse manager Teresa Parkinson was not available for comment.

Some problems are the result of poor insulation on pipes, said Roger Stewart, Roanoke fire marshal. In other cases, power outages may have knocked out heating and the fire sprinkler systems froze, he said.

At many apartments and houses, if residents heeded advice to open their cabinets and turn on faucets, they wouldn't have so many frozen pipes, plumbers said.

"We've had over 100 calls in the last two days from people with frozen pipes," said David Brown, owner of Direct Source Plumbing and Drain of Arlington.

Tim Hardeman, a Fort Worth Fire Department spokesman, said turning off sprinkler systems would help the department better cope with problems with broken supply lines and pipes in residential and commercial buildings.

To speed repairs of broken pipes, Keller City Manager Dan O'Leary said, officials are waiving a city permit for plumbers for three weeks.

"They just need to call us and let us know where they are working," he said. "We expect numerous pipe ruptures after things thaw out."

Staff writers Sandra Baker, Martha Deller, A. Lee Graham, Susan McFarland, Alice Murray and Steve Norder contributed to this report.

Darren Barbee, 817-390-7126