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Cold weather sparks water pipe woes

At Patrick’s Hardware in Hampton, the first signs of bursting pipes started showing up early Wednesday, when the sub-freezing temperatures began bringing in harried homeowners and plumbers in search of supplies for pipe repairs.

And that cold-weather stream of business is expected to pick up considerably over the next few days as forecasters predict more highs in the 20s and nighttime lows plunging into the teens and single digits.

“Copper lines and fittings. That’s what they’re looking for,” said Patrick’s employee Billy Byrd, reporting on the first signs of the damaging effects of the bitter cold.

“Pipes will start freezing when the temperature gets below 32 degrees — and it just gets worse when it falls into the 20s.”

At Ace Hardware in the Town Center Shopping Center in Hampton, the first reports of broken pipes appeared even before the snow started falling Wednesday night and have gotten worse through three days of unusually frigid weather.

Among the casualties was store employee Sherry Carter, who laughed as she described how — after a day of helping customers who came in with frozen pipe woes — “I had one break on me Thursday.”

In addition to pipe repair supplies, homeowners and plumbers were looking for insulating pipe wrap, outdoor faucet covers and heat tape, she added.

The increased demand for heat tape, in particular, has made the plug-in heating strips hard to find at the time when they’re most needed.

“Heat tapes are nice. They do a good job, but since you don’t need them here as much as other places where they get extended cold every year you can have a hard time finding them,” said Don Richardson at Beach Hardware in Hampton.

“A lot of places in this area don’t even stock them.”

Basic pipe wrap and insulation are still the first line of defense against the cold, Byrd says, and they are a lot cheaper than the store’s heat tapes, which can cost as much as $45 for a 12-foot-long section.

Covering or closing your crawl-space vents can make a big difference, too, Richardson adds, but you will still need pipe wrap and insulation if you want to protect the most vulnerable pipes that run along or near outside walls.

“Once you cover a pipe up, that’s it. You’re done,” he says.

“Insulation is almost permanent.”

Both Byrd and Carter also recommend an old plumber’s trick: Turn your inside cold-water faucets on and leave them dripping.

“As long as the water is moving, it doesn’t usually freeze,” Carter says.

“But every now and then even that isn’t enough and you can have a problem.”

Be prepared, too, for unwanted wet surprises once the temperatures return to above freezing.

That’s when hidden problems will start to thaw out and make an unwelcome appearance.

“Until it warms up again, you might not know that something’s broken,” Richardson says.

“So we’ll probably see a lot more people coming in after this cold weather eases up.”

Erickson can be reached by phone at 757-247-4783.

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