BY MICHAEL WINTERMUTE
Wyoming County Press Examiner
Last week, temperatures well below average affected people across the nation, posing significant challenges to travel and home maintenance.
Here in Wyoming County, even those who thought they’d been through it all were caught off guard by the subzero weather, which caused widespread damage to homes in the area.
Gary Lyons, owner of Avoca-based indoor environmental services company ‘Disaster Blaster,’ said the weather so far in 2014 has been out of the ordinary.
To put it simply, the business has been swamped.
“Right now, because of the extreme low temperatures and wind chill factors, we’re seeing so many cases of busted water pipes,” Lyons said. “Even people whose homes have been properly insulated against the cold have had broken pipes this time, and I think it’s because we haven’t experienced something this significant for a long period of time.”
The bulk of problems in the area have been the result of water pipes freezing in homes.
Typically at risk are pipes located in unheated basements or pipes that are installed along exterior walls of homes, making them more susceptible to cold temperatures.
Lyons said that although the temperature gauge may not read it, wind chill temperatures as low as 25-below still pose a serious risk to pipes.
“People don’t take into consideration the wind chill’s affect on pipes,” Lyons said. “But what you feel, the pipes feel.”
The most obvious sign of frozen pipes is a lack of running water. Residents will also notice their pipes have swollen just a bit in areas they’ve frozen.
If it so happens that the pipes in a home are frozen, there are reactionary steps that can be taken to minimize the total damage to a home.
First, the main feed to frozen pipes should be turned off.
This will prevent further freezing as well as eliminating some of the minor flooding that can come when pipes eventually thaw.
Next, it is important to open whatever faucets the afflicted pipes run to in order to release any pressure built up in the pipes.
If the pipe isn’t already cracked, opening faucets may alleviate built-up pressure just enough to prevent cracking.
Finally, heat should be applied to the area of the pipe that is frozen, whether it is a hairdryer or a space heater.
Following the freeze, there is a period of time as the pipes start to thaw where people may see flooding to parts of their home.
“The pipes will freeze and the copper ones in particular can get a small crack in them,” Lyons said. “As long as they’re frozen, there’s no water coming out, but people typically start to see damage once it starts to thaw.”
That’s where Lyons’ company comes in.
When his crews are called on to service a frozen or cracked pipe, they have a variety of ways of servicing a home.
First, they remove water with no drainage source, or standing water, from the building.
Then, the company uses special equipment to search wall and ceiling cavities to determine if any water is trapped in areas that aren’t immediately visible.
If the damage is extensive, walls may need to be torn down and replaced.
Otherwise, Disaster Blaster uses a unique wall-drying system comprised of dozens of plastic tubes that are run into walls to blow heat.
This process is possible around half the time.
As a preventative measure, companies like Disaster Blaster do pre-winter surveys of homes to determine whether or not a home is properly prepared for the hardships of winter.
If it appears temperatures are going to drop below zero, running heat in the basement could prevent pipes from freezing.
Also, opening cabinets in bathrooms and kitchens where pipes run will allow more heat to reach those pipes, possibly preventing freezing.
“The tendency is to always put the sink by the window,” Lyons said. “The kitchen sink piping is almost always on an exterior wall, so in cases where you have plummeting temperatures, sometimes all you need to do is leave the cabinet open.”
Unfortunately, frozen pipes aren’t the only danger winter presents to area homeowners.
Lyons also warned about ice buildups in gutters that could potentially cause drainage issues or damage gutter systems.
Another danger to homeowners in winter is fires, which Lyons said are typically the result of carelessness in regards to fireplaces, heaters and even Christmas lights.