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Central Texas experienced historic winter weather the week of Feb. 14, with a stretch of days below freezing. Sleet followed snow followed freezing rain, leading to a breakdown of the electric grid and widespread power outages. Water reservoirs were depleted and frozen pipes burst, leaving some without service for days.

Austin Plumbers Work To Get Water Moving Into Homes Again After Storm Causes Countless Busted Pipes

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Gabriel C. Pérez
/
KUT
Plumber Trevor Ayer points to a broken water pipe at a home in East Austin on Sunday, after a week of freezing weather and citywide water outages.

Lee esta historia en español.

Like most of us last week, Juan Carlos Aldrete was riding out the cold at his South Austin home.

“We lost power and we lost firewood the second night,” he said. "It was just — it was a pretty bad night.”

Then his neighbors’ frozen pipes began springing leaks, and the plumbing contractor jumped into action. Aldrete said he and his apprentice responded to about 20 houses that had flooding.

"Quite a few calls were neighbors or elderly couples that couldn’t shut their water off," he said.

Aldrete runs Aquazul, a small plumbing business that specializes in new home construction. Residential calls are not his usual thing, but the need was overwhelming and he wanted to help. He and his apprentice gathered wood to distribute, gave rides in his all-wheel-drive truck and repaired leaks.

Aldrete decided to post on the social-networking site Nextdoor to see who might need help.

“I thought I was just getting my area, but it went everywhere,” he said. “I was getting hundreds of calls, trying to help people out, but we did what we could.”

Navigating Austin's icy streets, they were able to get out to around 85 homes, while also trying to meet their own needs during the storm.

“The first two days that we were helping at no charge, we were just helping neighbors out, and we would repair as many pipes as we could,” he said. “But we got to a point where we had to make a decision: Just go around shutting people’s water off, and come back and make repairs later.”

Later — for many Austin-area residents — could be a while. The need for plumbers is so great, Texas is waiving rules to allow licensed out-of-state plumbers to work here and unlicensed local apprentices to work unsupervised.

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Gabriel C. Pérez / KUT
Ayer displays broken residential water pipes from jobs he completed Sunday.

The phones at home-service providers, like Radiant Plumbing and Air Conditioning, have been ringing seemingly nonstop for more than a week. The company says it's getting about five times as many calls as normal.

“Everybody who doesn’t have any water right now is top priority — no water or no hot water. ... I think we’ve got 1,000 calls backlogged right now,” Trevor Ayer, a plumber for Radiant, said. “Anything we can get to, we’re trying to.”

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Gabriel C. Pérez / KUT
Ayer works on a water pipe break at a residence in East Austin on Sunday.

On Sunday, Ayer was servicing a house in East Austin, where a pipe had broken inside a wall. The call had been placed six days earlier, right after the first snow, but no one could get out until then.

It was one of several repairs Ayer completed over the weekend, now that roads were clear. He said crews were working long days and the demanding schedule was likely to continue.

​“We’re forecasting the next two weeks, at least, just all hands on deck, seven days a week,” Ayer said. “Normally, I have off weekends, so it’s definitely a sacrifice on the family side. I have a 4-year-old and a 20-month-old. They enjoyed the time with daddy this week, but they’re already lamenting Day 2 of me being out late.”

The East Austin home owner is among the lucky ones with just one broken pipe. Still, it will require cutting into a wall at a cost of more than $800 to fix.

In addition to the tight supply of plumbers, there is also now a tight supply of parts. Aldrete was picking up what parts he could for his customers. He's been putting in long days, too — servicing the new home contracts for his business, and following up on his new, temporary, residential clients.

“I just want to say we work anywhere from 14- to 16-hour days,” Aldrete said. “It’s just long hours. I stopped counting the places we go.”

Aldrete said there are lessons we can all take away from the storm.

“It was a good experience to go through and teach us a lot about life,” he said. “I think we've got to get the good out of a bad situation. We cannot just look at the negative stuff. It just makes me appreciate the electric power and water supply and everything we take for granted on a day-to-day basis.”

Another lesson all plumbers suggested over the last few days: Everyone should learn how to turn off the water supply to their home.

Got a tip? Email Jimmy Maas at jmaas@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @maasdinero.

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