Fort Worth

Plumbers swamped with burst pipes after latest freeze

The latest blast of freezing temperatures caused flooding at the SafeHaven shelter in Fort Worth and is keeping plumbers and foundation crews busy dealing with broken pipes and resulting slab problems all across the area.

Residents at SafeHaven were startled awake about 2:30 a.m. Tuesday when a fire sprinkler pipe burst, setting off the building’s fire alarm, said Mary Lee Hafley, SafeHaven CEO.

“What I think happened was we had those warm days, then we had the really cold spell, and it stressed the pipes,” Hafley said. “It was in the ceiling above an unheated stairwell.”

Within minutes, the downstairs area was under six inches of water, and walls in almost half of the building were ruined. Children’s equipment and supplies stored in the flooded area were destroyed. There hasn’t been a damage estimate yet because a cleanup crew is still working on drying out the building, Hafley said.

“Anything that was close to the floor or too close to the wall was completely destroyed,” Hafley said.

The Owens family in Southlake had a similar shock when water began cascading out of the second-floor bath in their home.

“My husband shut off all the water in the house,” Liz Owens said. “But it ran for about 15 minutes before he could reach the valve.”

A neighbor helped Owens mop up, and an emergency plumber got the water back on to the rest of the house before permanent repair work could be done.

Because plumbers have been swamped with calls, a permanent repair had to wait until later in the week, when Mr. Rooter Plumbing was able to send someone.

Owner Mark McGaughy said the 25 plumbers working for Mr. Rooter in the Tarrant County area were booked so solid because of leaking pipes that he had to activate two technicians he reserves for emergencies.

“We’ve had so many freezes, what happens is a cumulative effect,” McGaughy said. “Even if a house is empty, the repeated freezes and thaws stress the plumbing.”

Other area plumbers told similar stories of burst pipes and flooded homes after the latest cold snap. Wednesday was the 55th day of freezing temperatures this winter in North Texas, which is the sixth most in Dallas-Fort Worth history.

“Last year at this point, we were at 28 days,” said Eric Martello, a National Weather Service meteorologist.

Cold and hot

This week’s freezing temperatures — after a weekend of highs in the 70s — kept plumbers running, said Carol Talbot, spokeswoman for Master Repair Plumbing.

“We started off slow on Monday and we’re already booked for the week and still taking calls,” Talbot said.

As they stopped the leaks and repaired the pipes, plumbers did what they could to prevent future leaks, Talbot said.

“Anytime we can replace copper with PEX pipe [crosslinked polyethylene], we do,” Talbot said. “It can expand three times its size and usually doesn’t burst when it freezes. In a slab we usually cap off the copper then reroute the lines up into the attic with PEX pipe.”

No matter what kind of pipes are involved, temperatures at or just below freezing usually aren’t a big deal, McGaughy said.

“It’s when it gets below 24 for 10 hours or more, that’s what does it,” he said.

At 8 a.m. Monday, the temperature at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport had dropped to about 16 degrees. But even that extreme doesn’t spell disaster for most places, McGaughy said. Frequent freeze-warm cycles are even more destructive.

‘Stresses the foundation’

Cold is not usually a problem for house foundations, said Gary Hunt, owner of G.L. Hunt Co. foundation service. What really matters is precipitation, or the lack thereof.

“We went into January about 22 1/2 inches below normal for a three-year period,” Hunt said. “Moisture is moisture whether it’s ice or rain. We had a record January — $600,000 between here and our San Antonio company. But it’s because the ground was so dry and foundations settled.”

The minimal effect freezing temperatures have on foundations comes from burst pipes that cause slab leaks, Hunt said.

“We have such high-density clay in Tarrant County,” Hunt said. “It swells up when the water hits it. When it dries out, it shrinks. That stresses the foundation.”

A plumbing leak can put a lot of water into the soil under a slab, or even wash it out, Hunt said.

“We’ve already gotten several calls from plumbers who say they’re referring customers to us because they saw that the slab moved up, heaved or dropped because soil was washed out by a major leak,” Hunt said.

Dealing with insurance

While homeowners’ insurance policies may cover sudden and accidental water release when a pipe bursts, coverage for resulting damage to a foundation isn’t as likely, said Ben Gonzalez, a spokesman for the Texas Department of Insurance.

“It’s less likely to be covered than a broken pipe and water damage to the house and contents,” Gonzalez said.

Whenever there’s a wild water discharge indoors, the homeowner should do whatever is necessary to minimize the damage, but preserve the evidence, Gonzalez said.

“Know where your shutoff valve is,” Gonzalez said. “Remove carpeting as soon as you can. But never throw anything away until your adjuster has seen it.”

And if you have a dispute with your insurance carrier, call the state at 800-252-3439, Gonzalez said.

“If you disagree with the adjuster’s evaluation, you can come to TDI for assistance with a complaint,” Gonzalez said. “We can’t promise anything, of course, but we have expertise in dealing with those things.”

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