Frigid blast puts pressure on Columbus-area homes and autos

Heating company sees spike in calls, while plumbers and auto shops await Wednesday’s thaw for more damage

tadams@ledger-enquirer.comJanuary 7, 2014 

Icicles hang from a fountain in the Broadway median in Uptown Columbus Friday morning, the result of below-freezing temperatures. 01/03/14

MIKE HASKEY — mhaskey@ledger-enquirer.com Buy Photo

Record low temperatures across the Chattahoochee Valley — created by a frigid blast of Arctic air from the North Pole — heated up business for some service companies Tuesday, with others expecting thawing on Wednesday to cause more problems for homeowners and motorists.

“The breakdown calls are pretty abundant today,” said Bill Bell, president of Energy Savers in Columbus, a heating and air conditioning service company that does business on both sides of the Chattahoochee River.

“Anytime the weather changes dramatically like that for the cold or for the hot, it’s going to run our call count up. We can go from having 15 calls on the board to 80 in just a few minutes it seems like,” Bell said about mid-morning, although he was projecting the number of service orders Tuesday would range between 60 and 70 as heat pumps gave out from the breathtaking temperatures.

Just how cold was it? The National Weather Service said Thursday morning’s low of 11 degrees shattered the previous Jan. 7 low of 17 degrees set more than four decades ago in 1970. It also is the lowest temperature for the city since registering 10 degrees on Feb. 5, 1996, said WRBL-News 3 meteorologist Bob Jeswald. Outlying areas of Columbus and Phenix City were a degree or two lower.

Auto shops, plumbing firms and towing companies were seeing sporadic business as the cold kept an icy grip on the region, with temperatures forecast to remain below freezing until about lunchtime Wednesday. At that time, with thawing taking place in home pipes and frozen automobile systems, residents and motorists will ultimately know if damage has been done and expensive repairs are necessary.

“Sometimes they’ll call us if (pipes) are just frozen and they don’t have any water. But there’s not a whole lot you can do to them until they start thawing,” said Janie Alexander, co-owner of Alexander Plumbing in Columbus.

Alexander had yet to receive any damage-related calls, although Brock Gallops, manager of Gallops Plumbing Service said he had about five or six early Tuesday, with expectations that the number would grow over the next couple of days.

“They’re just frozen right now,” he said of the pipes that supply water in homes for showers and washing clothes and dishes, as well as outside spigots that can freeze if unprotected. “Letting the faucets drip will relieve pressure so that the pipe doesn’t expand that much. But some people who leave their faucets dripping still can have their pipes freeze.”

Gallops’ advice? “Just pay attention and keep an eye on them,” he said.

Auto shops, for the most part, were taking a wait-and-see approach as well, with White’s Automotive in Columbus not yet swamped by motorists needing to have vehicles towed or repaired from cold-weather ailments. That may have been impacted from more people stopping by in preceding days to have their antifreeze fluid levels checked,” said general manager Harold White.

“I’m liable to see a little more trouble tomorrow,” he said. “Yesterday I had a pretty good number of tow calls. I had a couple of dead batteries. But I haven’t had any frozen cooling systems. It’s really too early to tell.”

Epperly Tire & Auto Center on Auburn Avenue in Columbus also wasn’t overwhelmed by those with busted radiators and hoses, said manager Chris Strength, although there were a number of people who stopped in with a warning light.

“The air pressure has dropped in their tires, so their air pressure lights are coming on,” he said of the indicator that appears on a dashboard letting drivers of newer vehicles know their tires are underinflated and need to be checked. “What a lot of people need to do is convert their vehicles over from regular air to nitrogen. Nitrogen does not drop as quick and it’s better on gas mileage.”

And while his Burkett’s Body Shop, which also services and repairs cars, had not experienced a surge in cold-weather work on Tuesday, owner James Burkett said he had witnessed some issues on local roadways.

“Coming to work I saw several pulled to the side of the road steaming, so I know that they were froze up overnight,” he said. “I’ve not seen any big influx of anything yet. But I’m sure there’s people that’s going to be in here with all kind of problems in the next day or so once we start to thaw and everything, because I’m sure it just busted stuff wide open.”

Burkett recalled a similar day-or-two deep freeze that hit the Columbus area in the late 1980s. His shop had four or five vehicles show up then, with them ultimately being diagnosed with a busted engine block, which renders them “junk” and requires a new engine. Lack of good antifreeze — rather than water-downed coolant or plain water that some motorists use — is often the culprit in such a case.

“If you didn’t have antifreeze, there’s nothing at this point that I can really advise to do other than just do a lot of praying that it doesn’t bust anything,” he said. “When it gets like this, it’s just awful.”

Bell at Energy Savers said he has a dozen technicians scrambling today to field heating system breakdowns for residential and commercial customers. His advice to home dwellers is to get their systems checked out before the cold or heat hits — both for safety and comfort — and to not turn the thermostat down too low in the winter when you’re away at work. A constant 68 to 70 degrees is a comfortable and energy-efficient range for most homes, he said.

“Some people think they can turn their system off when they’re gone to work, and then come back in to a 50-degree house and have it comfortable in no time,” he said. “Too far of a setback can cause a system in this weather not to recover so well.”

Ledger-Enquirer staff writer Larry Gierer contributed to this report.

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