At 11 p.m. Christmas Eve, John Clark had better things to do than to cope with frozen water pipes.
But recent freezing temperatures caused ice to form in his pipes, which made the pipes burst and flood his basement. If being without water wasn't enough to upset his holiday, Clark was faced with hiring a plumber at "emergency rates."But Clark couldn't get a plumber to come to his house on Christmas Day, even though dispatchers at a local plumbing firm twice promised to send a repairman.
Finally, on Dec. 26, a plumber came to Clark's aid. He wanted $125 for the first hour and $90 for each additional hour of work. His company's regular rate was $47 but he quoted a higher rate, which Clark assumed was a "holiday" or "after-hours" charge.
"Unless I'm mistaken, Wednesday (Dec. 26) wasn't a holiday," Clark said.
But Clark was in no position to argue. His family had already endured nearly two days without water. He reluctantly agreed to pay the fee.
Like Clark, many Utahns were caught by surprise by the arctic cold front that forced temperatures below freezing 12 consecutive days in December, according to William Alder, meteorologist in charge
of the Salt Lake office of the National Weather Service.
Plumbers say the cold snap comes every year but they generally don't expect the frigid temperatures until January or February.
"Down here along the Wasatch Front, we never seem to be quite prepared. Even though we live in a desert, every 10 years we're going to get temperatures 10 below (zero) and 15 below (zero). If we build things for that, we won't have problems," said Mike Willey, a licensed plumber with the plumbing company J.N. Allred Inc. of Ogden.
Morris Told, a licensed plumber and owner of of Told Plumbing, said most frozen pipes can be prevented with many of the same techniques employed to make homes more energy-efficient.
First, eliminate heat loss in the home. Caulk windows, drain the swamp cooler and put a cover on it, insulate your attic and any exposed pipes that lead to the exterior of the home. Use heat tapes but be sure to follow manufacturers' instructions.
Close doors promptly but leave the cabinet doors under the kitchen and bathroom sinks open to allow warm air to circulateabout the water pipes.
And don't be too stingy with your heat, because heat loss occurs quicker than heat gain. Higher utility bills during the winter are a relative bargain compared to plumbing bills and the replacement costs of furniture and possessions damaged by water, Told said.
The oft-heard suggestion of letting a little water flow through one's pipes at night is a good one, but don't forget to run the hot water, too. Hot water pipes are vulnerable to freezing as well because ice crystals form on suspended particles and salts that form within the pipes.
Short of replumbing the entire home, some homes will remain more susceptible to freezing because of the type of plumbing they have, the direction in which the pipes are laid and direction the floor joints are constructed.
"If you have an east plumbing wall or a north plumbing wall, your pipes are more susceptible to freezing than if you have south or west plumbing walls. With galvanized pipes, you have an even greater potential for freezing," Told said.
Any pipes that are not used during the winter, such as the sprinkling system and the evaporative cooler, should be drained. "Empty pipes can't freeze. It's good to drain pipes when possible if you're not going to use the pipe," Told said.
In new construction, the main water line should be buried well below the frost line.
"The minimum outside depth on a water line should be at least 42 inches, if not 4 feet," Willey said.
And whenever possible, water lines should not be placed in exterior walls.
While homeowers can perform some pipe thawing chores by applying heat tapes or blowing hair dryers on the affected pipes, or by pouring specially formulated antifreeze down frozen drain traps, Told suggests that most people call a professional.
"My advice to homeowners is never begin a plumbing repair unless you know how to do it. And never venture into a plumbing repair on a Friday night or a Saturday on a long weekend," he said.
Homeowners should exercise good judgment when they hire a plumber as well. Under ordinary circumstances, the going rate for a plumber's service is $35-$40 an hour plus parts. After-hours or holiday rates can be at least two times that much.
"If it (a plumber's rate) seems unreasonable or it doesn't seem correct, get a second quote," Told said.
But in Clark's case, waiting for another quote could have meant another day without water in freezing temperatures. "There was such a huge demand. If I had turned that guy down, it would have been a couple of days before I could get another quote," he said.
Clark, who is counsel to the Utah attorney general, said Utah doesn't have any laws to protect consumers from unscrupulous tradesmen who may charge exorbitant rates in times of emergency.
Willey suggests that the buyer beware: "There are people in the auto business who will take advantage of you. I'm sure there are those plumbers out there who will do the same thing."