More chills are on way with return of polar vortex to Western Pennsylvania

| Monday, Jan. 20, 2014, 11:36 p.m.

Plumber Dave Durbin says he has spent 12 to 16 hours a day fixing broken water pipes for most of January.

With another round of bitter cold on the way, Durbin doesn't expect his workload to let up anytime soon.

“There are broken waterlines everywhere. It's more than we can handle, even if I had triple the size of my business,” said Durbin, 46, owner of A Pittsburgh Plumber in Baldwin Borough. “We've been working seven days a week, and it was just starting to settle down. Now, it's looking like it's going to get cold again.”

The bitter cold snap followed by a spike in temperatures this month burst waterlines across the region, sending plumbers and insurance adjusters scrambling to respond to calls.

Weather forecasters say the region should brace for Round 2 of a “polar vortex.”

Temperatures are expected to plummet on Tuesday and bottom out on Wednesday morning at zero degrees, with a wind chill of 15 below. The National Weather Service in Moon issued a winter weather advisory for counties including Allegheny, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Washington and Westmoreland from 4 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday. People in those areas should expect 2 to 5 inches of snow, National Weather Service meteorologist Pat Herald said.

Eastern Fayette and eastern Westmoreland counties, along with parts of Maryland and West Virginia, are under a winter weather warning from4 a.m. to 10 p.m. People there should expect 6 to 8 inches of snow, Herald said.

The burst pipes have resulted in tens of thousands of insurance claims across the country. State Farm said it has received 27,000, including 2,400 in Pennsylvania, company spokesman Dave Phillips said. It had claims as far south as Georgia and Mississippi, Phillips said.

On average, a frozen-pipe claim can cause nearly $15,000 in damage and a crack of just one-eighth an inch can spew more than 250 gallons of water from a broken pipe, destroying possessions, drywall and furniture, Phillips said.

The cold has prompted a run on space heaters, plumbing supplies and hot-water heater jackets, said Kalisha Taylor, manager of the Home Depot in Wilkins.

Terry Mertz, owner of Terry's Plumbing in Ross, said he typically gets 100 calls per week, but he received about as many each day during the previous cold snap.

“People were paging me in the middle of the night. My girls (who answer the phones) lost their voices. So many people have freeze-ups, it's like putting your finger in the dike,” said Mertz, 55.

Eric Miller, owner of Miller Plumbing, Heating, Cooling and Electric in Castle Shannon, said 30 to 40 percent of calls could have been prevented. He and other plumbers said homeowners with previous freezing problems should let faucets run with a trickle, open cabinet doors to allow warm air to reach pipes and make sure crawl spaces with pipes have some heat flowing into them. Plumbers advised homeowners to know where their main water shut-off valve is located.

“That's the main thing you want to do right away if there's a problem,” said Miller, 53, whose service calls have tripled. “You're better off going to the main valve and once you get the water off, the emergency is eliminated.”

Bobby Kerlik is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7886 or

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