El Paso’s record-setting February deep freeze wreaked havoc on the city’s plumbing systems.
El Paso Water Utility officials estimate El Paso had more than 15,000 water pipe breaks in homes and businesses in the first week of February, based on the number of calls it received reporting broken pipes.
The Insurance Council of Texas estimated that 7,000 insurance claims were filed by El Paso homeowners and business owners for pipe break damage estimated at about $50 million.
So the question is, do the area’s building codes and construction practices need modifications to prevent future frozen pipe problems? Or should the pipe breaks be filed under a rare weather event that doesn’t warrant drastic changes?
City Engineer Alan Shubert said the city is investigating where pipes broke and determining whether changes in building codes or building practices are warranted.
El Paso’s building code is aimed at designing homes and buildings to withstand temperatures to 20 degrees, Shubert said. El Paso doesn’t need to design buildings to withstand zero-degree temperatures, he said, because then “we’d be spending money on things that we don’t need.”
“We’re not changing the design temperature,” he said. But the city is looking at possible changes to help piping better withstand low temperatures, Shubert said.
Randy O’Leary, president of Desert View Homes, El Paso’s largest homebuilder, said “everyone has to sit back and analyze this.” But, he said, he doesn’t
foresee the need for major design changes.
Ninety percent of pipe breaks reported at Desert View homes were on pipes connected to frozen outside water faucets, O’Leary said. Disconnecting hoses, covering outside faucets with insulation socks and letting the faucets drip can help prevent freezing, he said.
Shubert said some waterlines froze in garages in new homes because waterlines are brought into a house at an exterior garage wall where there is no insulation and no heat. A possible change may be to require lines to be brought into an insulated and heated part of the house, he said.
Another possible change may be requiring PEX, or crosslinked polyethylene, water pipes in home exterior walls and above ceilings, where temperatures get the coldest, Shubert said. PEX is a flexible plastic pipe that withstands freezing better than copper or other types of plastic pipe, Shubert said.
Greg Bowling, president of the El Paso Association of Builders, the local homebuilders group, and vice president of Tropicana Homes, said that Tropicana has used PEX pipe for years and that it works well.
“Our company didn’t have much problem with pipes breaking,” Bowling said. “The majority of homebuilders had minimal problems.”
Builders are open to making changes that improve homes, Bowling said. “I don’t want a knee-jerk reaction that comes up with costly or ineffective ways for what was an unprecedented weather event. We’ll wait and see what the city proposes.”
Besides outdoor home faucets freezing, backflow preventers located outside commercial buildings and on outdoor sprinkler systems froze and broke all over town, Shubert said. The backflow preventers are in insulated boxes. Requiring the boxes to be heated may be an option, he said.
Pipes froze and broke in water pipes installed in home attics, and in ceiling spaces in commercial buildings, Shubert said.
Some breaks were in pipe installed above insulation in an attic. It’s a good practice to install the pipe between the insulation and the ceiling or between insulation in a wall, but that’s not specifically addressed in the building code, Shubert said.
Amada Flores, president and owner of Aim Construction, an El Paso remodeling contractor, said her company has seen a lot of homes where pipes broke in attics with inadequate insulation, including a home on Janway on the East Side with $30,000 worth of damage. Aim insulates pipe when it runs through an attic even though the insulation is not a building code requirement, she said. That should be required in the code, she said.
O’Leary at Desert View said it’s a misconception that insulation would have kept pipes from freezing. When it gets as cold as it did for several days this month, the cold eventually engulfs the insulation and it holds the cold like an ice chest, he said.
Flores said cold-weather cities in the northern United States insulate pipes because temperatures drop so low.
Shubert said a lot of fire sprinkler lines in ceiling spaces in commercial buildings froze and broke, causing a lot of damage.
Paul Bauer, vice president of CF Jordan, a large El Paso construction contractor, said buildings in very cold climates have dry pipe systems for fire sprinklers, where water doesn’t go into the pipes until a sprinkler head pops off in a fire.
Those systems are expensive and don’t make much sense in “our typical climate,” he said.
Some pipes may have frozen because buildings didn’t have heat at times due to rolling blackouts during the three days of temperatures well below freezing, Bauer noted.
Wade Daw, president of the Thomasville furniture store and Daw Home Furnishings on the East Side, said the Thomasville store and a warehouse under the store suffered more than $1 million in damage when a frozen water pipe in a ceiling space near a restroom broke when the store was closed during the weekend of Feb. 5.
Daw said he was unaware the store had a frozen pipe. The plumber said the break was due to a frozen pipe, he said.
“I came into the store Monday morning (Feb. 7), and we had six inches of water. Half the showroom was flooded,” Daw said. Water condensation throughout the building also damaged furniture, he said. The adjacent Daw Home Furnishings store was not damaged, but some of its inventory was in the flooded warehouse, he said.
“I don’t know what you could do other than insulate the pipes, but I’m not sure that would be the answer,” Daw said. “We’ve been in business 60 years, and never had anything like this.”
Insurance adjusters haven’t yet determined the exact damage amount, but it’s more than $1 million, Daw said.
While many home and business owners suffered extensive damage when pipes broke, many others were able to divert disaster.
Diana Coronado, 32, said she was home when a pipe in her living room broke in her year-old Desert View home in the Upper Valley during the extreme cold weather. The pipe is tied to an outside water faucet that froze.
As soon as she heard the break, Coronado rushed outside and shut off the home’s water at the water meter.
“We were very lucky to be home when the pipe broke,” Coronado said. “Our neighbor got hit pretty bad. His entire house got flooded” from the same type of pipe break because he wasn’t home when it broke, she said.
Many Desert View homes in the area were hit with the same problem, so many homeowners were upset, Coronado said.
“These things happen whether it’s a new or old house,” Coronado said. “I’m not mad at Desert View Homes.
They came in and fixed it.”
O’Leary, at Desert View, said the company’s fixing broken pipes and damaged walls caused by frozen pipes for homes bought in the past two years even though the company’s two-year home warranties exclude frozen pipe breaks.
The company isn’t fixing extensive water damage because that’s covered under home insurance policies, O’Leary said.
“We probably have more (pipe breaks) than anyone else because we have more homes” in the community than other builders, O’Leary said. Desert View builds more than 400 homes a year.
“I’ve been in business 27 years and have never seen this happen.”
Flores, at Aim Construction, said some homes sustained more water damage because the home’s main water shut-off valve located at the water meter next to the street was broken or stuck, and the water couldn’t be shut off.
Christina Montoya, spokeswoman for El Paso Water Utilities, said in an e-mail that the utility received “very few calls about valves at the meter not being able to be turned off because they were stuck or damaged. The majority of the problem was people not knowing how to turn off” the valves, she said. New homes are required to have a shut-off valve where water lines come into a garage.
O’Leary and Bowling said their companies received calls from people who didn’t know where to shut off their water.
Montoya said homeowners should periodically check shut-off valves to make sure they’re working.
O’Leary said Desert View is making a list of recommendations for homeowners to follow to get homes ready for cold weather, and steps to take to help avoid frozen pipes if extreme cold weather returns. The company plans to send the list to Desert View homeowners before next winter.
Raul Villegas, owner of 30-year-old Villegas Plumbing, said he saw breaks in all types of pipe, breaks in insulated and noninsulated pipe, and breaks in lines within insulated walls. “I don’t see anything that can be done. We were colder than Alaska” during part of the three-day freeze, Villegas said. “We saw breaks in new and old homes. It didn’t matter.” Vic Kolenc may be reached at email@example.com; 546-6421.
By the numbers –15,000: Estimated pipe breaks in first week of February.
–7,000: Estimated number of insurance claims for water damage.
–$50 million: Estimated damage done to homes and businesses that filed insurance claims.
Sources: El Paso Water Utilities, Insurance Council of Texas.
State Farm Insurance, which had 2,193 El Paso claims for broken-pipe-related damage from the recent cold snap, has these suggestions to prevent frozen pipes, and steps to do if a pipe freezes: –Open cabinet doors under sinks to let heat get to pipes.
Seal air leaks with caulk or insulation near where pipes are located. Look for air leaks around electrical wiring, dryer vents and pipes.
Insulate pipes in attic and crawl spaces.
Try thawing a frozen pipe with warm air from a hair dryer. Start by warming the pipe closest to the faucet and work toward coldest section of pipe.
If you detect frozen or broken water pipes, turn off water at the home’s main shut-off valve, and leave faucets open. Call a plumber.
Make sure family members know where shut-off valve is and how to use it.
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