TRAVERSE CITY — Chuck Ohlfs received an unexpected, anxious call from a couple who returned to their Glen Arbor home at Christmas and expected everything to be as they’d left it in October.
To their dismay, the sinks were frozen and toilets had popped into porcelain pieces all over the floor. The unwelcome home party came courtesy of northern Michigan’s abnormally cold December.
“People get up here expecting everything to be happy,” said Ohlfs, who owns Chuck Ohlfs Total Maintenance Inc., and knows better from years of experience.
Some good news for those already weary of bitter cold. A respite is on the way, with temperatures lifting to the teens today and into the 30’s Friday through Sunday, Nick Schwartz, a meteorologist at the National Weather Service in Gaylord, said.
But prolonged periods of cold weather, incessant snow and winds overall have punched homes hard this winter, and many in the maintenance industry said they’re getting many more calls now than they usually do this time of year.
“It just seems like December was more like our traditional January or February when you get the bitter cold,” said Bill Hemming, owner of Walters & Hemming, Inc., a Traverse City company that provides plumbing, heating and air conditioning services. “We’ve experienced a lot of no-heat calls where furnaces and boilers are working harder. It seems like we’ve had double the problems with no heat and probably double frozen pipes, too.”
Constant cold can create heating system failures and frozen pipes, maintenance experts say.
Frozen water pipes can burst and then leak. A common fix is splicing new copper pipe with the old, split one.
Heating systems are working overtime this year in an effort to keep homes warm in single-digit weather. Most of the problems with furnaces and boilers are preventable if they’re checked before winter sets in, those in the trade said.
“With a well-maintained system, you’re going to get the value out of it and reduce emergencies,” said Shawn Wolf, the service agreement manager at D&W Mechanical of Traverse City.
Empty vacation or part-time homes can be the most problematic. With no one around to turn on heat or water, a bout of extreme cold can threaten water pipes.
Wolf said his company already has been called to several vacation homes where basements flooded after frozen pipes cracked and ice later thawed.
“These are mainly on seasonal homes where they don’t have any type of systems to let them know the temperature has dropped to alert them and let them get a hold of a contractor,” Wolf said.
Team Bob’s, a heating, cooling and plumbing company based in Traverse City, received numerous calls about frozen pipes from mobile home residents.
“They’ve got a lot of exposed pipes underneath the trailers. In a standard house, we don’t have pipes freeze because there’s heat in the house,” said Aaron Rubin, the insulation manager for Team Bob’s.
A heavy blanket of snow can cover exposed pipes and keep them from freezing. Stuart McKinnon, the owner of Torch Plumbing who serves mostly the Rapid City and Kalkaska areas, said he hasn’t received any calls about frozen pipes.
“With this amount of snow that we’ve got, the ground stays pretty warm because it acts like insulation,” McKinnon said.
Roofing woes later on
Snow has a completely different effect at the top of the home, where under certain conditions it can leak inside the structure.
The problem is less likely to rear its head now than in the late winter and early spring, when snow and ice begin to thaw.
Mike Tucker, who owns Grand Traverse Roofing, recommends homeowners have professionals clear snow off their roofs now to prevent ice dams from causing problems.
Ice dams form when snow melts, slides to the edge of a roof and refreezes, where it forms an impermeable ring around the roof. Once snow begins to thaw faster than the ice in the spring, the water is blocked from dripping off the roof and instead can get under shingles and leak inside the house.
“Eventually, the water will go somewhere,” Tucker said.