Max Jarman – Feb. 5, 2011
The Arizona Republic

The recent string of below-freezing nighttime lows in the Valley has caused pipes to burst, irrigation systems to malfunction, water heaters to fail and furnaces to blow cold air.

The uncharacteristically cold winter has been a boon for plumbers and heating specialists, who are being deluged with calls about frozen and burst water pipes, cracked spigots and broken furnaces.

So many valves in irrigation systems have failed in the past few days that local plumbing-supply houses have run out of replacement parts.

The bad-weather woes follow a freak hailstorm Oct. 5 that damaged roofs across the Valley and still has roofing companies swamped with repair jobs.

Cold-weather damage can be pricey, too. Repairs can range from a few hundred dollars to thousands. Valves for sprinkler systems, a common casualty of chilly temperatures, can cost $50 to $100 alone.

Nurseries and home-improvement centers also likely will be beneficiaries of the cold as consumers come in to replace frost-withered plants and flowers.

Ann Donahue awoke Friday morning to the sound of running water at her Cave Creek home.

The pipe serving the misting system on her patio had frozen and burst, gushing water into her backyard. She and a neighbor finally were able to shut the water off to the house, but not before the yard was transformed into what she described as a “frozen pond.”

“I know how to take care of pipes when it’s cold. But I didn’t expect this out here,” said Donahue, who lives in Boston when she’s not at her vacation home in Cave Creek.

Quail Plumbing in Phoenix has been fielding twice the volume of calls since temperatures plunged Tuesday night.

“Yesterday, it was central Phoenix, and today, it’s north Scottsdale,” Maggie Hall, Quail’s service manager, said Friday. “Some places got colder at different times.”

San Plumbing Supply, which has 10 stores in the Valley, ran out of pressure-vacuum breaker assemblies at all its stores Thursday and is not sure when it will get more.

“They have to come from the East Coast, and everything’s delayed because of the snowstorms,” said Andrew Smith, manager of the San Plumbing store in Scottsdale.

The valves prevent water from flowing back into the city water supply and are particularly sensitive to freezing.

“When they break, you basically get a whole lot of water shooting out,” Smith said.

Sun Devil Plumbing in Tempe also has seen a spike in calls because of frozen pipes.

“It’s the worst I’ve seen since 2007,” said Dave Swanson, Sun Devil’s vice president, recalling the last notable cold snap.

On Jan. 14, 2007, the overnight low hit 21 degrees in metro Phoenix and stayed in the low 20s for the next few days.

To prevent damage, Swanson recommends that people let their outside faucets drip during cold nights and that they cover irrigation-system valves with a towel or blanket.

“That would save a lot of trouble,” he said.

Heating and air-conditioning companies also have been busy.

Jim Probst, president of George Brazil Services, said the company received almost 500 calls Thursday and Friday from customers with heating problems.

“February is typically one of our slowest months, but the past few days have been some of our busiest,” Probst said.

He noted that people have been running their furnaces longer and harder because of the cold, which can lead to failures, particularly in older units.

Freezing weather also makes chronic furnace problems more apparent, Probst said.

“You don’t always notice your furnace isn’t working right, until it gets really cold,” he said.

Probst said the company also has received a number of calls about water heaters that have failed.

“Most water heaters are in garages that aren’t always heated,” he said, adding that cold temperatures contribute to failures in older water heaters.

Most of the broken pipes in the Valley have been exterior ones, and the damage has been relatively light.

“We’ve had some frozen fountains, but not a lot of damage reported,” said Cameron Perkins, an agent with Allstate Insurance in Phoenix.

That hasn’t been the case in Flagstaff.

Capt. Kevin Wilson of the city’s Fire Department said crews responded to about 80 burst-pipes calls over the past few days, many of them involving significant damage.

“We had one entire residence that was flooded with a couple inches of water,” Wilson said.

Many of the burst pipes in Flagstaff have involved fire-sprinkler systems, which prompt an automatic call to the Fire Department when a problem is detected.

Beth Soucie, an Allstate agent in Flagstaff, said she is dealing with several significant claims resulting from broken water pipes.

Many of the claims date to New Year’s weekend, when temperatures fell well below zero in the Flagstaff area. That weekend, city firefighters responded to more than 150 calls for broken water pipes.

Seven buildings at Northern Arizona University sustained water damage from burst pipes at the time, along with many commercial buildings, apartments and residences.

Because many residences in Flagstaff are second homes, broken pipes can go undiscovered for some time and can result in significant damage.

“Some people could be in for quite a surprise when they come up in April or May,” Soucie said.

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