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Energy & Environment
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.

Are You Worried About Your Pipes? This Austin Plumber Explains What To Do.

February Winter Storm
Julia Reihs
/
KUT
Water freezes on pipes outside an apartment building in North Loop during the winter storm.

Lee esta historia en español.

Plumbing is one of those things you don't really think about until you're forced to think about it. This week, as snow, ice and days of below-freezing temperatures hit Central Texas, many residents have faced frozen pipes and water leaks.

KUT’s Jimmy Maas spoke with Brad Casebier, CEO of Radiant Plumbing and Air Conditioning in Austin, to figure out why cold weather is so hard on the pipes in our homes and what to do when there's a leak.

KUT: Brad, you've been doing this a long time. You started with your dad as a teenager. Have you ever seen anything like this?

Brad Casebier: No, we've never seen anything even close to this. So having been — I don't know the exact amount of years — but more than 30-plus years of plumbing experience. No, nothing even close.

Just so we all have a basic platform of where we're starting, why is cold weather so hard on pipes inside your house?

Oh, yeah, this is super simple. Water expands when it freezes. That's why ice cubes float in your glass. They take up less area, and they rise to the top. So, your pipe is not really designed to expand and then contract. Some new, modern pipes like PEX handle freezing better. They will actually stretch and then they have a memory and they go back to their original size. But the coppers and the CBVC's and the brass, galvanized piping. It'll freeze, and it stretches that pipe.

Now, you may not burst the first time, but the next time it freezes, it's starting from a stretched out point and it'll stretch again. And so, you know, pipe can maybe be frozen three or four times and burst that last time, or it might burst on the first go.

At what temperature does it become really difficult for houses, normal houses with modern-day plumbing, to be affected by the cold outside?

For me personally, if it's going to freeze 32, 30 degrees at night, I don't drip my stuff. Your house retains enough heat and it's only freezing for a little while and then it warms back up. It's a good practice to drip, but what I found from my business side, just watching call volume, is when things really start to break is when you don't come out of freezing in the daytime and it drops into the low to mid 20s overnight. And that's when we start getting a lot of broken pipe calls.

Right. So, for those of us who might be, you know, thawing out and stumbling upon leaks, what's our first course of action aside from calling you?

I think everybody in Austin that owns a home should know how to shut the water off to their house. Even if you don't have an active leak, go figure out how you're going to shut your house down now. And then when it happens, then you're prepared and you're not in a complete panic trying to get that done.

With our call volume, we're doing a lot of video calls and walk-throughs and helping people through these situations. But we can't even answer the phones, there's so many. It's so hard to get help right now. So you're kind of on your own. So you really want to know how to shut your water down.

That main is usually in the front of your home out by the sidewalk or street.

Yeah, most typically on the left or the right side of your lot. And there's a big circular cast-iron lid, that's the city meter. And your valve to shut it off should be within 12 inches or so of that in a little round box or pipe with typically a green lid or a little cast-iron lid on top of it. And that should be the valve that shuts off your home.

How difficult or easy is that to do saying we don't have the proper tool?

If it's in good condition, you shouldn't need any tools. You should be able lift the lid off, grab that valve, crank it and you're closed. Over time ... the lid disappears and then dirt gets in the box and it eventually gets grassed over, and the homeowner can't find it in a panic.

The city always keeps their meter box open because they're checking your water meter all the time. And there you will need a tool if you're going to use their shutoff, which in an emergency would be OK. We're not supposed to use that valve as an off-and-on for your house. That's the city's property. But some pliers or a crescent wrench. It's a square-headed valve, and you can get pliers or a wrench on it and twist that thing. I think that's a 90-degree shutoff that'll completely shut the water off to your house.

How have you been coping? How's the family and employees? I mean, everyone's kind of in the same boat.

I'll be honest. It's super stressful. I mean, we're sad. I mean, we see call after call and read the notes and talk to these customers. And their lives are essentially destroyed, you know, and we really can't get to them. So, yeah, it's a lot to take on. And then the CSR team is just hammered with calls. So it's a lot. And we would love for this to thaw out and for the roads to be safer and for us to be able to to move quicker to get people a resolution.

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