- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 8, 2007

The cold snap has frozen and broken hundreds of pipes in the Washington area, causing traffic problems for motorists and headaches for homeowners and area plumbers.

“You know it’s going to happen this time of year,” said Jim Neustadt, communications director for Washington Suburban Sanitary Commission (WSSC), which serves more than 1.7 million residents in Montgomery and Prince George’s counties.

Broken and leaking water mains increased early Wednesday as temperatures fell below freezing. Ever since, local work crews have been on the job round-the-clock. On Wednesday alone, WSSC crews fixed 79 leaks, officials said.

“It’s getting high, but not for this time of year,” Mr. Neustadt said. “Our people are working hard. They are really dedicated.”

Changing temperatures cause more leaks, said Harold Turner from Arlington’s Control Center, but the repair calls this winter have been normal and repairs have been made rapidly. Crews have repaired seven water main leaks and about 25 frozen meters on pipes this week, he said.

“This is not more than usual for this type of weather,” he said.

Crews of D.C. Water and Sewer Authority were exceptionally busy Wednesday because they had to find four leaks in a long water main, which measured 8 inches in diameter. Underground leaks are found with special listening devices because water often flows great distances underground before it is seen.

“We have had an increase in calls,” this week, said Johnnie Hemphill, a spokesman for WASA, adding that most of the 200 daily calls are from homeowners or residents including renters. “Most of them have not been of an emergency nature.”

Fairfax County Water Authority, which serves 1.3 million residents in Northern Virginia, reported 38 water main breaks so far this month, a number that’s about normal.

As a result of snow and subfreezing temperatures Tuesday and Wednesday, crews were dispatched to about 50 locations, said John W. Kingsbury III, director of the authority’s transmission and distribution division.

“This is a kind of busy time,” Mr. Kingsbury said, but, “This is about average. In 1994-96, there were a lot more than that.”

Changing temperatures and water pressure cause more leaks in old pipes, officials said.

Mr. Neustadt said several water mains within the WSSC territory are about 70 years old.

“We’re getting more leaks,” he said. “And, it’s increasing every year.”

The oldest pipes are made of cast iron, which is brittle and breaks from pressure. Newer pipes are made of more flexible metals, which adjust better to changing temperatures and water pressure.

Local plumbers also have reported an increase of broken pipes in private residences. But homeowners don’t have to fall victim to the freezing cold, they said.

Opening inside doors, turning off inside hose valves and installing heat tape are a few measures that can reduce the risk of frozen pipes and water damage, heating loss and repair costs.

“That type of behavior will save a lot of people a lot of heartache,” said John Oliver, general foreman of A-1 Fry Plumbing & Heating Corp. in Northeast.

His company has fielded 30 to 40 calls from homeowners asking for help with frozen and sometimes burst pipes since the beginning of the recent arctic blast, he said, an exponential increase from the few it normally gets.

Mr. Oliver advised residents to take a proactive stance against the cold by leaving cabinet doors below kitchen and bathroom sinks open to allow warm air to circulate around the pipes. Interior doors also should be left open, particularly in basements, to keep areas of a house from becoming extremely cold and susceptible to freezing temperatures.

“Let the warmth from the heated air get in there,” he said.

Thomas E. Clark Plumbing, Heating and Air Conditioning Inc. in Silver Spring has gotten about 30 calls since the cold snap began, said owner Michael Hartman. He said many of the frozen pipes were caused by homeowners who forgot to turn off the inside valve to their outside hose faucets.

“There’s a valve inside the house that shuts it off before it goes through the wall, and so many people forget to shut it off before the cold weather starts, and bam, it breaks [outside the house or in the wall],” Mr. Hartman said. That can lead to bigger problems such as a flooded basement or a damaged heater.

He advised homeowners to shut off hose faucet valves and install insulation around pipes that run along exterior walls or in unheated spaces.

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