Terry Fisher says he’s busier than three dogs on the same chain chasing the same bone. The owner of Quality Plumbing Galveston says he’s received some six hundred calls a day since Monday—a higher volume than after Hurricane Ike, the seventh-costliest hurricane in U.S. history, crashed into Galveston in 2008. “It’s like a bomb’s gone off,” he says.
Winter storms this week that forced Texans to live for hours or days without electricity to keep the state’s energy grid stable hit usually-balmy Galveston Island particularly hard. An estimated 90 to 95 percent of homes in the area went without power earlier in the week, as snow and ice continued to pile up. “You’d think your vehicle was a ghost because you’d look back at your tracks and there were none,” Fisher said of the city’s snowy scene. Then, as power and heat started to be restored, pipes began to gush, turning rooms into kiddy pools and wreaking a new round of havoc on already exhausted islanders.
It’s not just a Galveston problem. Pipes are bursting across the state as water inside them freezes and expands. It’s an issue that will compound once heat fully returns: once ice melts and water flows at full blast, too much liquid will flow in at once, turning small cracks in pipes into a gusher. “We expect the claims for frozen, busted pipes to be unlike any event the state has experienced,” the Insurance Council of Texas wrote Thursday on Facebook. Governor Greg Abbott, comparing the crisis to Hurricane Harvey in 2017, shed regulations on plumbers earlier this week—waiving continuing education requirements for previously licensed professionals and allowing out-of-state ones provisional licenses—to amass a pool of tradesmen and tradeswomen ready to take on the workload.
Fisher, who has been fixing plumbing for 45 years, has seen his fair share of burst pipes. He compared leaks to dogs: some are small but vicious like Chihuahuas, others explode with the force of a pit bull’s bark, and the worst are like a Great Dane, “Marmaduking through the house and taking a ceiling out: he ain’t got no good sense about him.” Repairs under sinks or behind walls could cost a few dollars or a few thousand dollars, he tells me.
Fisher considers himself a doctor of homes and buildings. He compares replacing old galvanized pipes to putting stents in clogged arteries, and replacing water heaters and systems to heart transplants. With his decades of experience and reserves of folk wisdom, we asked him to explain what Texans should do to triage a burst pipe—or try to prevent one.
- Fisher’s first piece of advice is to locate your water meter. You’re going to want to know where the meter is so, at the very least, you can shut the valve off quickly if your pipes burst instead of scrambling in the moment or waiting for a plumber or the city to do it. You can usually find the water meter in your front yard near the street, but it could also be in your back or side yard. The city cutoff valve is six to eight inches from the water meter on the side opposite your home. The property owner’s cutoff, which many utilities recommend you adjust instead if you have one, is on the side closer to your home.
- To turn off your water, you may need just your hand, but you’ll likely need a water key or a crescent wrench and a screwdriver to act as a handle. You may have to dig into the dirt around the meter to find the shutoff valve. Once you locate it, use your wrench, hand, or water key to turn the knob, also known as a meter stop. The water is flowing when the valve points toward your home—parallel with your pipe and the direction of water flow. To close the meter, turn the valve perpendicular to the pipe. Not sure you have the right tools? “Be creative,” Fisher says, and use the crescent wrench and put a screwdriver “through the ass of that handle.”
- Fisher advises looking out for a telltale sign that you could have a busted leak in the making: if “others got water and yours is on but no water is flowing, your happiness is frozen.” But even if you don’t have signs of a leak, he recommends that you arrange to store enough water for a few days and shut off the valve. This allows frozen water inside pipes to thaw without mounting pressure from the water line when the ice melts. If there is a crack that you didn’t see, turning off the water meter now means liquid won’t suddenly spew out when you’re not looking or are out of the house.
- If you don’t shut off the water now and are later caught by a surprise burst pipe, turn the water off immediately at the water meter or the property owner’s valve. Then, if your pipes are still frozen, Fisher recommends waiting until rising temperatures have completely thawed the pipes before having a plumber visit (but to get ahead of the lines you might want to call now). A plumber can only fix what he sees, and you may have other leaks that cannot be detected until everything is thawed. Keep your receipts and document the damage for insurance. If you have a damaged pipe and can’t get the water off, with a receipt you may be able to negotiate down your astronomical water bill when it comes due.
- If you turned your water off and don’t have any apparent leaks after everything has thawed, turn the water back on at the meter—but if you live in an area under a boil-water notice or water conservation period, wait until that restriction is over. Run both hot and cold water in the bathtubs, first for five to ten minutes. Then run the faucets in the rest of the home, letting them flow for several minutes. Look for pipes spewing out water. If you find one, you can immediately turn the water off again at the meter since you’re now a pro. “If you have a bust, at least when you turn the water back on, when things stall out, you’ll catch it immediately,” says Fisher. Then call a plumber. But know that with demand for plumbers expected to skyrocket, you’ll need to “get in line,” he says.