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'Friday's going to be horrific': Prepared for the worst, Austin plumbers hits the streets

Matthew Odam
Austin American-Statesman

The phone at Radiant Plumbing & Air Conditioning has not stopped ringing for days, with about 1,000 calls pouring into the Austin-based business each day this week. 

Founder and CEO Brad Casebier says his company’s phone system has had the same outgoing message for as long as he can remember: boilerplate info thanking people for their call and asking them to briefly hold. That changed this week. 

The Austin-based company has received about a 500% increase in calls this week, leading to a new message. Customers are kindly asked to not call back for an update on their job specifics (all will be called 24 hours before their assigned appointment) and are thanked for their “patience and grace as we work through this disaster together.”

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The calls regarding frozen and broken pipes backed up this week, as many of the Radiant plumbers were sidelined by the treacherous weather conditions. Customer service representatives served in a triage capacity, taking customers’ information and creating a schedule for when work would actually begin. When the few trucks that were able to make service calls hit the roads earlier in the week, Casebier says neighbors would approach his plumbers with requests.

“Everyone’s got a problem right now,” Casebier said. “It’s really stressful and so frustrating to be unable to help but we’re very excited to be full bore Friday.”

Phil Risinger turns on water to his home on Feb. 16, 2021.   Risinger and his husband had a water pipe burst in their garage causing minor flooding. The couple and a friend fixed the pipe.

Casebier said he planned to deploy the full team Friday to repair burst pipes, along with supplemental hands who usually work on installations and drains, following a storm that he says will leave unprecedented damage in its wake. Customers with the most urgent needs would be given priority. He said on Thursday that appointments were being scheduled about three weeks out and that he expected the lags to increase.

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“This could get into a month. Friday’s going to be horrific,” Casebier said, adding that some problems will take hours and others will require a full day. “If we got 100 calls done Friday, I’d be super excited.”

Radiant used their plumbers for virtual calls earlier in the week, charging $20 for 15 minutes of phone or video chat time to walk customers through their problems, but the demand was so overwhelming that they ceased the service. 

How to tell if you have frozen, burst water pipes

As temperatures finally reach above freezing for an extended period of time, Casebier says many homeowners will discover burst pipes and fears the worst for outdoor tankless water heaters, which he says likely will be damaged. 

If people suspect they have frozen pipes, Casebier suggests they turn off their water at the source near the street, so that when the pipes do thaw and water begins to flow, they can control when they turn the water back on and monitor where there may be leaks. Homeowners also should open taps after water is turned off to alleviate pressure in the pipes. 

Casebier says that cracked pipes will make a hissing sound that may be discernible, and spraying or leaking water also will be an obvious indicator.

What if you have a water leak or flood?

Once customers determine they definitely have a leak, they should turn their water off and wait for the plumber to do repairs. Because of big delays in service calls, Casebier says homeowners could handle problems such as minor cracks by installing small fittings from companies like SharkBIte as a stopgap before getting professional help.

If someone has had a leak or flood, after turning off their water, Casebier says the customer should focus on drying the affected area. 

“This is super important: If you have water in your house, getting every drop up you can up is really critical,” Casebier said. “Trapped moisture is what causes mold. You can pull up your baseboards and even cut a little of the sheetrock and allow the wall to breathe. Putting fans is helpful but you want to be very purposeful.”

Why do water pipes burst at all?

With pipes bursting across the city, some have wondered why areas in other parts of the country that regularly experience severe weather don’t suffer the same level of damage we’re seeing in Austin. 

“We just have different construction standards because this only happens every 100 years. We’re not required to put a high degree of effort into insulating,” Casebier said. 

Homes in Austin are required to bury their water supply lines only a foot below dirt. Cities with much colder climates have regulations that require pipes be buried 6-to-8 feet below ground. Casebier says that the statistics regarding breakage and loss will come out in the weeks ahead, and may call for a reevaluation of installation and plumbing regulations in Austin. 

“I think we should definitely consider upping some of those standards,” Casebier said.