Frozen pipes pervasive following outages

St. John’s plumbing company has 200 names on waiting list

Published on January 8, 2014
Tips to avoid freezing pipes.
— Graphic by The Canadian Press

Plumber Sean Parrell was already busy dealing with burst pipes at homes in the St. John’s area before Saturday’s massive power outage that left some properties without any source of heat for more than 24 hours.

“Some of the older homes downtown, they really can’t go for two or three hours (without heat) because they’re not well insulated and there’s drafty conditions,” said the owner of Avalon Plumbing and Heating Ltd.

“(Saturday morning) when that knowledge came, we went into panic mode, because we didn’t know how to deal with so many calls.”

The company is now working with a standby list accounting for 200 phone calls.

“I’ve been working 16-hour days ever since the storm started,” said Parrell, calling the current workload the heaviest he’s ever experienced in almost 20 years of operations.

Andrew Draskoy, who lives in a 140-year-old home in downtown St. John’s, spent 32 hours without power.

“In an old downtown house with no other source of heat, of course, I had to worry about the pipes,” he said.

The temperature dipped below the freezing point inside his house as the outage went on, and sure enough, pipes froze and burst.

“It’s not too surprising my pipes froze, despite my best efforts to keep the water running and all those things. All of us who are likely to have burst pipes just because of old plumbing and old houses, we know what to do, generally, to avoid it. But essentially it was unavoidable on that day.”

Not only water pipes have been freezing, but also those connected to heating systems.

“What would happen is that with the power outage, it would shut off the furnace and then the pipes to the radiators would freeze and there’d be a lack of heat,” said Parrell. “Then when the power would come back on, they still weren’t getting heat. So we were going around trying to thaw out radiators, and we just couldn’t keep ahead of it.”

For water pipes, Parrell suggests there is not much more people can do during an outage beyond letting the water run.

“Once they lose power, they’re really at the beck and call of how long the power is going to be gone, the wind conditions and the cold.”

Saturday’s brew had all three of those ingredients covered. Winds were heavy at times, and cold temperatures were in keeping with what has been an unseasonably cold winter early on.

“It’s a recipe for freezing that people can’t control, unless they have a backup source such as a generator to power the furnace,” said Parrell.

Draskoy considered turning off his water and draining the pipes, but the mechanism for doing so is located in his basement, which can only be accessed from outside.

“Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to do that on that night,” he said, noting it was so cold that he was not particularly interested in going outside to shovel a path to access the basement.

“It was something like eight feet high,” said Draskoy of the snowbanks in his yard.

New homes are typically well insulated and less likely to freeze during outages. They also commonly make use of plastic piping, a type of piping Parrell speaks highly of.

“Generally plastic piping, it will freeze, but it won’t break, so as soon as the heat comes back on, the pipes will thaw out, and there’s no damages. We’ve been in a large number of homes where all the Gyproc ceilings are on the floor; there’s thousands of dollars of damage done because the pipes are frozen.”

When people choose to go through insurance, Parrell finds companies will typically cover the cost of materials, but not labour, leaving homeowners to cover that expense.

Draskoy plans to pay for all the work related to his burst pipes. The damage was confined to an upstairs bathroom and should not be too costly in his estimation.