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The Spokesman-Review Newspaper
Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Spokane’s pipe gripe: Subzero weather keeps local plumbers busy

When temperatures plummet and residents hunker down in their homes, Spokane plumbers are the busiest people in town.

“I’ve never seen it like this before,” Chris Dearman said.

Nearly eight years ago, Dearman began working at Mr. Rooter Plumbing. He now owns the company with his wife, Hilary.

Typically, company workers answer around 20 calls a day. That number soared to about 100, he said.

The company’s 10 plumbing technicians are working long hours to service customers day and night as the Spokane area has grappled with subzero temperatures.

“Everyone on staff is running out of juice, and it’s difficult to keep going,” he said. “But we just ask them to safely get through what they can and to just focus on one job at a time.”

Christina Borges, dispatch coordinator for Raptor Rooter & Plumbing, said this weekend was the busiest the company has been since its founding seven years ago.

“This is probably the worst cold that we’ve seen,” she said. “I mean, it does get this cold, but not for as long and as windy as it was.”

Borges’ team typically fields 40 to 50 calls on a usual work day. Between Saturday and Tuesday afternoon, 600 people asked for help – an average of 150 daily calls.

“Almost all of our calls have been either a pipe burst or frozen pipes,” she said.

Kayla Poggemeyer, a service dispatcher for Plumb Zebra, said workers are fielding 200 calls everyday, a drastic increase from their typical 50-100 daily calls.

“Normally we book out four appointments per day per team of technicians,” she said. A team consists of a professional plumber and an apprentice.

“We’re running about 10 appointments a day right now.”

Borges said many different pipes in a structure can be vulnerable, but it is common that pipes to kitchen sinks freeze because they are often routed through the walls on the perimeter of the house.

Also referred to as exterior pipes, these are just a small barrier away from frigid outside conditions.

To mitigate issues, she advises homeowners to open any cupboards to ensure heat can easily access the pipes.

Also, she and other plumbing industry professionals advised to keep the thermostat up to ensure a property, and its utilities, is warm.

This bumped up against requests from Avista to reduce thermostat settings by at least 2 degrees as the company faced an unprecedented natural gas supply problem from a Canadian pipeline company.

“Avista worries about power consumption, if everybody turns up their heat, then the more likely it is for power outages to occur,” Poggemeyer said.

But those in the industry have differing concerns.

“As a plumber, we worry about making sure that you don’t have a burst pipe that’s going to lead to thousands of dollars of potential damage.”

Poggemeyer and others also recommended the constant running of water from all faucets of a property.

“Just a slow trickle – it doesn’t need to be full bore,” Poggemeyer said. “Just that constant movement of water is going to help a lot.”

Plumbing issues over the weekend did not discriminate, according to Dearman.

Calls came from owners of older homes that do not have proper insulation of pipes on exterior walls. And calls came from the owners of new homes that are vulnerable because they are more commonly constructed with water heaters in the garage, which usually has no heat system, Dearman said.

For every residential property with issues, there are almost as many commercial properties, Dearman said.

Celeste Shaw, owner of Chaps Diner and Bakery, said she recognized a plumbing problem in her Latah Valley business Sunday morning.

Shaw, who also owns Café Coco downtown and Vinegar, a homegoods store in Latah Valley, said she took every precaution to avoid plumbing issues.

“We added extra installation, we left all the faucets running, we had space heaters warming the exterior walls,” she said. “We even added boards outside to keep moisture off the exterior walls.”

Shaw and her husband alternated shifts every two hours of driving from their Marshall home to the three businesses and checking on them.

“We did what we could to survive Armageddon,” she said.

But Sunday at around 5:30 a.m., Shaw arrived at Chaps to find faucets with no running water. After a long search, Shaw and her husband found a fractured pipe in the ceiling.

In a narrow space between rafters, a pipe cavity was exposed to a slight airflow, she said.

“It’s like Murphy’s law,” she said. “I mean, I don’t know what else we could have done.”

Without running water, Shaw decided to open the bakery using only the dishes that were clean at the time.

“We used some paper cups at the end, but when we were out of plates we were done,” she said. “Time of death was around 11:45 a.m.”

Shaw said the experience could have been a lot worse.

“This was no tragedy, it was just a hiccup. But this is the Inland Northwest; we have four seasons here – things are always going to come up,” she said. “Conditions like this weekend are dangerous not only for people, but for businesses also.”

Shaw hopes her experience can act as a reminder to property owners to be aware of the locations of utilities and to have a plan for when weather conditions worsen.

Still, taking every necessary precaution does not guarantee an issue won’t arise, Borges said.

“I had frozen pipes and one that burst in my own house,” she said. “So I’ll tell you first, precautions aren’t always enough.”