In the last 21 years, Ray Hopkins can't remember a winter quite like this one.
The owner of ServPro of Sussex County said his staff has been flooded with calls for service to clean up the mess left by broken pipes.
“The only other time we can recall a year equal to this was 1994, when two ice storms hit back to back,” he said.
His staff of 15 employees has been working seven days a week taking care of the more than 200 calls the company has received. The demand has been so overwhelming, Hopkins said, he added six temp employees to help with the load.
Former State Sen. George Bunting, a State Farm agent in Rehoboth Beach, said he has been inundated with insurance claims.
• Check around the home for other areas where water supply lines are located in unheated areas. Look in the basement, crawl space, attic, garage, and under kitchen and bathroom cabinets. Both hot and cold water pipes in these areas should be insulated.
• Consider installing specific products made to insulate water pipes like a "pipe sleeve" or installing UL-listed "heat tape," "heat cable," or similar materials on exposed water pipes. Newspaper can provide some degree of insulation and protection to exposed pipes – even a quarter inch of newspaper can provide significant protection in areas that usually do not have frequent or prolonged temperatures below freezing.
• Keep garage doors closed if there are water supply lines in the garage.
• Open kitchen and bathroom cabinet doors to allow warmer air to circulate around the plumbing.
• When the weather is very cold outside, let the cold water drip from the faucet served by exposed pipes. Running water through the pipe - even at a trickle - helps prevent pipes from freezing. Local plumbers recommend shutting off the water if pipes are exposed because the trickle of water can freeze.
• If you will be going away during cold weather, leave the heat on in your home, set to a temperature no lower than 55 degrees.
Source: American Red Cross
“With the last freeze and the current freeze all insurance companies are scrambling, trying to get restoration companies and contractors and plumbers,” he said.
From an insurance standpoint, Bunting said, claims caused by the current freeze are hitting his company harder than those following Hurricane Sandy.
Hopkins says about 60 percent of the homes affected are what he would classify as seasonal residences. The other 40 percent are from year-round residents and commercial properties. He said with so many calls, everyone is being put on a list. From there, he said, circumstances, such as an elderly resident or the scale of flooding, often dictate who gets pushed to the top of the list. His staff is moving as fast as it can, he said.
“It's a challenge in a sense that this is our forte, this is what we do,” he said. “Basically, it's a matter of juggling. We can't keep everybody happy. We work our best to try to get everyone service in a timely fashion.”
Dean Sherman, owner of George Sherman Corp. and Sherman Heating Oils, said his employees have been tapped often this winter to repair broken heaters and water lines.
“Weather drives our business,” he said. “We've had consistently cold temperatures this year and more extreme.”
He said broken water lines often occur when exposed outside or in areas, such as attics or crawlspaces, where the owner may have left vents or doors open. When a line in the attic breaks, water can leak from the attic all the way to the basement. Specific precautions must be made for homes on pilings, Sherman said, so the cold winds do not cause a leak.
Harry Caswell, owner of Harry Caswell Inc., said he's seen a lot of problems with plumbing under manufactured homes. Similar to houses on pilings, he said, water lines are often exposed. If a piece of the home's skirting comes loose and wind blows under the home, pipes can be damaged.
“It's simple stuff, but if you're not there, your pipes are going to freeze,” he said.
His staff has been working around the clock during the deep freeze. He said many of the problems could have been avoided, especially in seasonal homes.
“You can prevent hundreds of dollars in damage if you turn your water off,” he said. “If the water is on and you're not there, you can be in trouble.”
Another tip, he said, is setting the heat to 55 degrees, which should be warm enough to prevent pipes in walls from freezing.
Not all homes are spared, though. And crews will be working for the foreseeable future repairing and restoring the many homes already affected by this year's harsh winter.
“If there's a silver lining, there's going to be a lot of work for contractors into the spring,” Bunting said.
Propane shortage results in higher bills
As temperatures remain low, Cape Region residents using propane to heat their homes may notice their bills are a little higher.
Dean Sherman, president of Sherman Heating Oils, said the demand for propane is very dependent on the season. Prices typically rise in the winter, he said, but short supplies this year have driven the price higher than usual. To meet the demand, Sherman said, propane providers have had to pull product from remote areas and increase freight.
The ballooning prices have hit hard in the Midwest, jumping to as much as $5 per gallon. The shortage forced Minnesota Gov. Mark Dayton to declare a state of emergency.
While the prices have not skyrocketed as much in the Mid-Atlantic, residents have taken notice.
Cape resident Barbara Smith said the price to replenish 50 gallons of propane for her home jumped 25 percent in one month, up to about $3.20 per gallon.
“That's pretty outrageous if you do the percentage,” she said.
She said the rising prices could have a serious effect on the many Cape Region residents who live on a fixed income. Not only will they pay more per gallon, but they will likely need to refill sooner.
“Normally, I would make it through February, but that's not the case, and we all know why,” she said.
Andrew Levinson, president of the Mid-Atlantic Propane Gas Association and Schagrin Gas Company in Middletown, said Delmarva's propane companies are not as bad off as others throughout the country. But they are still seeing a spike in demand, resulting in higher prices.
“There's been plenty of product, but strong demand in the Midwest that goes back to the fall with crop-drying needs and the unprecedented cold weather that has hit us here and the Midwest stretches things to the limit,” he said.
His company has had to send trucks as far as the Carolinas for propane, but is fortunate to have access to the railways to get product – one location being Georgetown. While prices have increased more than usual due to the unseasonably cold weather, Levinson said, he expects customers to see lower bills in the near future.
“The prices will come back down,” he said. “We have to get through this weather.”