On a typical Wednesday, Kennesaw-based Superior Plumbing receives about 200 calls. On Wed., Jan. 8, its call center logged 1,865 calls, said General Manager Tom Gregory. "We have 16 incoming channels for our phone system, and there were extensive periods on the first two days of the event when all 16 of those lines were occupied," he said. "At times, we couldn't even get an outgoing line to contact customers."
Marietta-based Sundial Plumbing received at least 2,500 calls during the deep freeze, said owner Mitzi Moore. "I had to call for emergency IT help to keep my phone system from blowing a circuit," she said. "For two days and one night we experienced between three and 21 incoming calls at all times - simultaneously, around the clock."
Typically, an uptick in calls is good news for any business. But with thousands of pipes springing leaks across metro Atlanta, neither Sundial nor Superior could possibly meet the demand. (Sundial employs 12 licensed plumbers; 35 are on staff at Superior.) "It was so bad that our computers crashed," said Jackson Williams, an intern at Sundial who answered hundreds of calls during the freezing weather. "We had to start running on old-school, paper-based work orders."
Calming stressed-out callers was part of the challenge. "I was on the phone with a guy whose garage had a foot of water in it," Williams said. "He was freaking out. He couldn't get the water turned off. I could hear it rushing into his garage."
Gregory heard similar horror stories during a debriefing with his plumbers. "One of the guys talked about going into a house where a man was sitting with his face in his hands in despair," he said. "The man told the plumber, 'It is raining in my kitchen.' Pipes were spraying water. The ceiling was on the floor."
Rusty Flynn, owner of Acworth-based D&R Home Services, also received more emergency calls than he could answer. But because D&R's specialties include water-damage restoration, Flynn is now helping several clients with restoration projects as well. Cobb businesses and homeowners could save themselves headaches by better preparing for the next deep freeze, he said. One critical step is to memorize the location of the main water shutoff valve for any home or business. "When water is running out of a broken pipe, every minute counts," Flynn said.
Pipes in unheated buildings are more likely to freeze and burst, so Flynn advises turning off water heaters and main water shutoffs whenever leaving a home or business unheated. He cites a visit to a vacant house in Mableton just after the polar vortex. "I walked around back and water was rushing out of the basement door," he said. "A pipe had burst, but the customer didn't even know the water was on. This customer was not expecting to be back for five months."
Other tips include insulating exposed pipes with products such as heat tape, caulking exterior siding to protect pipes in the wall from icy winds, and using space heaters to raise the temperature of pipes in crawlspaces and other vulnerable areas. "Always take water hoses off and drain them during the winter," Flynn said, "and cover your hose bibs."
When water damage does occur, Flynn urges people to be careful about any documents they sign with contractors. "Some of these companies out there will hand you a contract and say 'You need to sign this to confirm that we came, drained the water and set up all this equipment,' " he explained. "But the fine print gives the company all legal rights to deal with the insurer from here on out, and it takes away the customer's right to get a second bid for the restoration project or to hire another contractor."
Managers at both Sundial and Superior are now reviewing their data from the incident. Their goal is to find ways to respond as efficiently as possible whenever the next multi-day freeze occurs.
"It is not just a matter of us wanting to go out and work so we can get a paycheck on Friday," Gregory said. "I talked to our plumbers about this and they unanimously agreed that when our community is in a crisis situation, we have a professional obligation to respond to the best of our ability. I am proud of the folks here. It was a pleasure to stand up and thank them for their excellent performance during the event, across the board."
Moore described her plumbers as heroes for their tireless efforts to help people during the deep freeze, the ripple effects of which continue to be felt. Indeed, plumbers are still taking calls from customers whose water has been shut off since early January as a result of freeze-related leaks. "While the crisis peak is under control, we will still see freeze-related problems a month from now," Gregory said.
In fact, just days after the first event ended another cold front moved in. Some were calling it "Polar Vortex 2."