Myrtle Beach area water pipes, heat pumps struggling with weather

sjones@thesunnews.comJanuary 30, 2014 

The Grand Strand’s prolonged frigid weather has ramped up business for area plumbers and heating repair businesses, with some comparing the high numbers of calls for help in the past week to what happened in winters a decade or more ago.

“We got absolutely slaughtered last week,” said Steve Beatty of Four Star Plumbing and Air Conditioning in Conway. Things quieted down during the ice and snow storm the last two days, but Beatty said, “When it finally gets above 40, it’s going to be a nightmare.” As frozen lines thaw, busted pipes will become evident.

Plumbers and heating repair businesses that offer round-the-clock service said their crews have been out 24 hours a day battling frozen and busted water lines and defrosting overworked heat pumps.

“It’s been crazy,” said Mike Scirocco of East Coast Heating and Air Conditioning in Surfside Beach. “With this cold weather, it’s been nonstop.”

While the National Weather Service says that things will warm up considerably Friday and through the weekend, the average high and low temperatures this month have been as much as 5 degrees off normal.

Dave Loewenthal, a forecaster in the Weather Service’s Wilmington, N.C., office, said the average high and low this month at its North Myrtle Beach monitoring station has been 42.7 degrees and 32.1 degrees, respectively. That’s three degrees cooler for the average daily high and a chilling 5 degrees below normal at night.

Temperatures have dropped into the teens since Monday and barely warmed to above freezing during the day. While it was expected to get to 38 degrees Thursday afternoon and melt some of the ice that covers most roads, it was forecast to refreeze overnight, making for a memorable Friday morning commute for those who brave it.

The Weather Service advised motorists to stay off roads until Friday afternoon, when the temperature is expected to rise into the low 50s.

Plumbers and heating services, though, can’t ignore the pleas for help.

“[Heat pumps] are freezing up and people are scared because there’s ice on them,” said Brenda Fergueson of One Hour Heating & Air Conditioning.

She said the company had more than 120 calls for help Wednesday, four times the average, and that 19 technicians, four installers and two indoor air quality experts were on the road Thursday.

The problem, said Fergueson and others, is that heat pumps just aren’t able to cope with the very cold temperatures.

Ice accumulates on them, and while units should switch to a defrost mode to clear it, that doesn’t always happen, said Joey Todd of Atlantic Heating & Cooling of North Myrtle Beach. He said he turned on the air conditioner on his home heat pump Wednesday night to send hot air out of the unit faster to defrost the ice accumulation.

But on some units, the ice from the ice storm built up enough that it stopped the fan from running.

Scirocco said that systems are running so much trying to warm homes that many older units are developing mechanical issues that need fixing so the units will work.

“They can’t keep up and they just stop,” said Fergueson.

People who have heat pumps can always activate their heat strips to boost the inside temperature, but that’s an expensive alternate that people don’t like to use.

“A lot of people had just as soon freeze to death as turn them on,” Fergueson said.

Area plumbers started getting flooded with calls late last week, but the phones went mostly silent once the storm hit.

“As of right now, people have just decided to go through it,” said Richard Vines of Vines Plumbing in Myrtle Beach. “Once the weather warms up, I expect we’ll get a lot of calls.”

Dave Sodano of DS Plumbing in Myrtle Beach said there was no connection of frozen pipes to power outages, which were minimal from the storm.

“Things around here just aren’t made for [prolonged cold],” he said.

Kim Gatling of Atlantic Plumbing in Myrtle Beach said his crews have been shutting off water in response to frozen pipes. There will be no way to tell if lines have broken until there is enough of a thaw to unclog the ice in there already.

Gatling said his business got more calls Saturday than it could handle. Beatty said he tries to make sure that existing customers get help first, but others have to line up like they’re waiting at a hospital emergency room.

“We just run it like a trauma center,” he said. “First come, first served.”

James Boyer of James Plumbing in Little River said that his business is likely to see an echo surge of pipe damage around Easter. He said many of his customers are beach home owners who shut off the water and leave for the winter. As they come back and restart utilities in the spring, at least some could find broken water pipes.

Although residents are suffering and businesses are sweating to keep up during this winter’s cold, all can take comfort that this isn’t like 1993.

That year, according to weather.com, was when Myrtle Beach recorded the lowest temperature in the company’s records: 5 degrees.

Contact STEVE JONES at 444-1765.

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