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Plumbing is one of those things that you don’t really think about until you are forced to think about it. This week, as snow, ice, and freezing days hit central Texas, many residents faced frozen pipes and water leaks.
KUT’s Jimmy Maas spoke to Brad Casebier, CEO of Radiant Plumbing and Air Conditioning in Austin, to find out why cold weather is so harsh on the pipes in our homes and what to do if there is a leak.
KUT: Brad, you’ve been doing this for a long time. You started out with your father as a teenager. Have you seen anything like this before?
Brad Casebier: No, we’ve never seen anything like it. So – I don’t know how many years are exactly – but more than 30 years of experience in the plumbing sector. No, nothing even close.
Just so we all have a basic starting point, why is cold weather so tough on the pipes in your home?
Oh yeah, it’s super easy. Water expands when it freezes. That’s why ice cubes float in your glass. They take up less area and rise to the top. So your tube is not really designed to expand and then contract. Some new, modern pipes like PEX can handle freezing better. They actually expand and then have a memory and return to their original size. But the copper and the CBVCs and the brass, galvanized pipes. It will freeze and stretch the pipe.
Now you might not burst the first time, but the next time it freezes it starts from a stretched point and stretches again. So, you know, a tube could be frozen three or four times and burst the last time, or it could burst the first time.
At what temperature does it become really difficult for houses, normal houses with modern plumbing, to be affected by the cold outside?
For me personally, when it freezes at 32 or 30 degrees at night, I don’t drip my things. Your house retains enough heat and it only freezes for a short time and then it gets warm again. It’s good practice to drip, but what I’ve found out from my business side, just looking at the call volume, is when things really break down, when you don’t get out of freezing during the day and it lowers up mid 20s falls overnight. And then we start getting a lot of broken whistle calls.
To the right. So, for those of us who might thaw and stumble upon leaks, what is our first course of action other than calling you?
I think anyone in Austin who owns a home should know how to shut off the water to their home. Even if you don’t have an active leak, think about how to close your home now. And then if it does happen then be prepared and don’t panic trying to do it.
With our call volume, we do a lot of video calls and walk-throughs and help people through these situations. But we can’t even answer the phone, there are 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 turn off your water.
This main line is usually in front of your house on the sidewalk or on the street.
Yes, usually on the left or right side of your property. And there’s a big round cast iron lid that’s the city meter. And your shut-off valve should be within 12 inches or so in a small round box or tube with usually a green lid or a small cast iron lid on it. And that should be the valve that shuts off your home.
How difficult or easy is it to say we don’t have the right tool?
If it’s in good condition, you shouldn’t need any tools. You should be able to lift the lid, grab the valve, twist it and you are closed. Over time … the lid disappears and then dirt gets into the box and it eventually becomes grassed and the homeowner cannot panic to find it.
The city always keeps their meter box open because they constantly check your water meter. And that’s where you need a tool if you want to use their shutdown, which would be fine in an emergency. We shouldn’t be using this valve as an on and on for your house. This is the property of the city. But a pair of pliers or a half-moon key. It’s a square valve, and you can take pliers or a wrench on it and turn the thing. I think this is a 90 degree barrier that will completely shut off the water to your home.
How did you get on? How are family and employees? I mean, everyone is kind of in the same boat.
I will be honest It’s super stressful. I mean we are sad. I mean, we see call after call and read the notes and talk to these customers. And their lives are essentially ruined, you know, and we really can’t get to them. So, yes, there is a lot to be done. And then the CSR team is just hammered with phone calls. So it’s a lot. And we’d love this to thaw and the streets were safer and we were able to act faster to give people a solution.