Pipes, meters all over city freeze up

Water lines and water meters alike froze in substantial numbers Friday around Wichita as one of the area's strongest cold snaps persisted.

Friday's overnight low of 1, with strong north winds that pushed wind chills well below zero, were more than the pipes and meters in numerous homes and businesses could handle.

"Officials are being overwhelmed with calls regarding frozen and burst water pipes," said Elizabeth Owens, division manager for water distribution for Wichita Water Utilities.

More than 160 calls reporting frozen pipes or meters had come in by early Friday afternoon, she said.

Local plumbers reported brisk business, too.

"There's been a bunch coming through," said Greg Lee, project manager for Superior Plumbing.

Most of the calls have come from those in mobile homes or dwellings with crawl spaces rather than basements, said Frank McCormick, plumbing manager for Hanna Heating, Air and Plumbing.

"All we can tell them is you've got to get a heater next to the place where the pipe is frozen, or turn up the heat in your house," McCormick said.

Turning up the heat is usually enough to thaw the pipes, he said, because the heating ducts usually run through the same spaces as the water lines.

Wichita hasn't been above freezing since Dec. 30, but plumbing executives say the wind chill has been more to blame for the freezing pipes.

"The most important thing" to prevent pipes from freezing "is to seal that wind off," said Karen Dzatko, owner of A Good Plumber.

Wind chills in the negative teens have been widespread in the Wichita area for the past several days and should continue today, forecasters say.

Owens said the wind is to blame for scores of municipal water meters freezing. The meters are slightly elevated, exposing them to the winds.

"If the water in the meter is frozen, the water can't get through the meter into the house," she said.

Customers who lose water service should call the Water Utilities Emergency Line at 316-262-6000 for assistance in locating the source of the problem. But officials urged patience, because so many frozen lines or meters are being reported.

"We haven't had this situation occur in a number of years," Owens said.

National Weather Service officials have said Wichita hasn't experienced a cold snap of this intensity since 1996. But no temperature records have fallen this week.

"It's unusually cold, not record cold," said Mary-Beth Schreck, a meteorologist with the weather service.

Forecasters say highs today won't climb out of the teens.

The cold snap is expected to end Sunday, as south winds hoist temperatures above freezing for the first time in 2010. Highs should be in the 40s by the middle of the week.

Plumbers warn that the warmer weather will bring some nasty surprises.

"I guarantee that there's a lot of people in town right who have... frozen pipes and they have no idea at this point," said Adam McCollough, owner of the Butler Group, which includes plumbing work and water damage restoration.

As the pipes thaw, they'll burst from the damage caused by freezing, plumbers said. Homeowners will wonder where the new leaks came from.

"Copper just doesn't freeze well," McCormick said. "If copper freezes, it's going to break."

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