On the eve of an anticipated freeze for the Houston area, those in the plumbing industry such as John Eccles are preparing for what may come, with memories still fresh of the demands they faced during 2021’s Winter Storm Uri.
“Oh man, from a service side, the volume (after the 2021 storm) was just so great it was like we were trying to swallow the ocean,” said Eccles, who is operations manager for Nick’s Plumbing and Air Conditioning, a company providing 24-hour residential and light-commercial service in the region. “We kept guys in every day, and we were just trying to attack certain parts of the city each day.”
Expected to hit days before Christmas, this year’s predicted winter freeze has created a different set of challenges for plumbing companies like Nick’s, which has 21 plumbing trucks that serve an area that includes Katy, Baytown, Conroe, Richmond and League City and has its main office in the Heights.
“This freeze is hitting us at, if not the worst weekend of the year, then one of the top three worst weekends it could happen on. So, we’re just making adjustments,” said Eccles. “Securing the materials to take care of our customers and adjusting our work schedules — those are the two biggest things we want to do.”
Frozen or burst pipes do not adjust for homeowners’ or work crews’ schedules, and one of the challenges is that freeze-related problems could stretch crews already working in all-hands-on-deck mode.
“We only have so many guys and we can only go to so many places and there are only so many hours in a day, and we try to let our customers know that,” Eccles said.
Freezing temperatures this winter will come earlier than expected, he said.
“The weather this year has been odd anyway,” Eccles said. “When you think about it, we have really had much cold weather in December.”
But he said his crews are not in panic mode because December 2022 is not February 2021.
Temperatures are not expected to go or stay as low as during the 2021 winter storm, and it is going to be drier. And homeowners are being extra cautious this time.
At Deer Park Lumber, 1600 Center St., Deer Park, operations manager Russell McKay has been seeing a rush of customers eager to prepare for the weather.
“At this point now, just find some way to turn your water off, empty your faucets, cover your outside faucets with what you can and duct-tape them. That’s the best you can do now to protect yourself,” said McKay, who began to see an uptick in sale of weather-related material such as insulation last week.
Gone is the store’s supply of keys for controlling water values.
“We actually sold everything (in water keys) we had today,”he said Wednesday. “That’s people’s last resort by turning their water off and emptying their lines and hoping for the best.”
He’s expecting another shipment of insulation material on Friday. It’ll probably be too late for this cold snap, but not for others after that.
Likewise, Eccles said his company has seen an increase in calls in the past week from people desiring to head off potential problems.
“As of now, we are seeing an increase in people taking precautions — winterizing their home, insulating pipes and that things of that nature,” he said. “Everything right now is strictly precautionary and that’s a good thing.”
Many residents, said Eccles, are still shell-shocked by the aftereffects of the 2021 winter storm, which included burst water pipes, icy roads and homes left dark by power outages.
“I think (the experience of 2021) absolutely changes people’s perception of things,” he said. “Because of what happened then, people are more apt to take precautions needed and take things more seriously. You can see it at places like Home Depot, where as soon as (the predicted freeze) was reported, people were not waiting until the last minute and are already trying to get ahead of this thing versus the other.”
Owners of homes that have aging or outdated infrastructure should be particularly on the alert, Eccles said.
“Everything has a shelf life, and when that shelf life is close to its expiration date or beyond its expiration date, it’s way more vulnerable to this kind of weather event,” he said.
But even if homeowners take every precaution, nothing is guaranteed, said Eccles.
“There is nothing you can technically do that is going to 100 percent guarantee that you will be free of any problems,” he said.
Eccles said part of the challenge for companies like his is to find the flexibility to give crews an opportunity to experience the holiday with their families.
“We also know what kind of industry we’ve gotten into and the ups and downs of it; so if that can’t happen, we understand,” he said.