Icy weather puts a freeze on water pipes

  By Thomas Wilson
  
  twilson@starhq.com

  Winter's early season bite created more problems than icy roads and general discomfort for some local residents this week.
  Temperatures plunged into the low single digits Monday morning freezing precipitation to roadways and water inside pipes around northeast Tennessee.
  Marvin Cornet of Cornett Service Group plumbing company in Elizabethton said his telephone began ringing Monday morning with complaints of frozen water pipes.
  "I've had over 30 people call me in the last few days," he said. "Most of what we are getting is PVC lines and a couple of copper lines."
  The National Weather Service reported a low temperature of 7 degrees above zero in the Tri-Cities on Monday morning. While high temperatures are expected to climb into the low 50s today, the National Weather Service forecast bitterly cold temperatures returning to the region this weekend. The NWS forecasts low temperatures falling into the low teens on Friday and Saturday nights with high temperatures not getting above 30 degrees for both days.
  Cornett said most calls came from residents of mobile homes where water pipes - often made of non-metallic PVC material - were exposed to cold air. He said there was little that could be done with PVC pipes except wait until warmer temperatures thawed them.
  "If anything is exposed to the wind or anything like that it is going to freeze," Cornett said. "Once they are froze there's not a whole lot you can do until they get warmed up."
  Cornett said keeping a pencil-lead thin stream of water running from a faucet is the easiest way to prevent pipes from freezing. He said insulation material was available to protect utility pipes exposed to cold, but the insulation should completely seal the pipe to prevent freezing.
  Cornett also said using devices with extended electrical cords to thaw frozen pipes could pose a great danger to an individual, especially if he or she is using the device in a crawlspace or similarly confined area. If the pipes suddenly burst and sent water gushing in proximity to an electrical device, he said people stand a great risk of electrocution.
  While several residential homes suffered from frozen pipes the city of Elizabethton did not suffer damage to water lines or water meters as a result of the low temperatures. City Director of Public Works Ted Leger said one utility meter had to be defrosted from exposure to cold temperatures, but no utility lines suffered damage.
  "It has to be really cold for several days in a row for the frost to reach down into the roads," said Leger.
  Leger said most of the city's utility lines were buried at least 30 inches to 3 feet deep in the ground.
  "The ground has to get frozen that far down for the lines to freeze," he said.
  Kelly Geagley, executive director of the Elizabethton Housing and Development Agency, said the cold weather probably contributed to a 2-inch water line breaking Monday afternoon in the EHDA property on Pine Circle. City public works crews and agency maintenance crews repaired the line and restored water service Monday evening.
  Additional cosmetic work along the road near the water line was completed Tuesday afternoon, Geagley said. He said the agency's more than 300 residential units had been spared frozen water lines from the recent weather.
  "So far we've been lucky on the insides of the apartments," he said.
  Geagley said an EHDA employee could have had a premonition the line break was going hours beforehand.
  "We had a maintenance meeting Monday and somebody said 'get ready for a water break,'" he said. "At three o'clock, it happened."
  To avoid frozen water pipes, the American Red Cross recommends checking a residence for areas where water supply lines are located. The agency advises insulating both hot and cold water pipes in these areas should be insulated. A hot water supply line can freeze just as a cold water supply line can freeze if the water is not running through the pipe and the water temperature in the pipe is cold.
  Pipes can also be protected by installing specific products made to insulate water pipes like a "pipe sleeve" or installing UL-listed "heat tape," "heat cable," or similar materials on exposed water pipes.