Frozen Pipes Call for All Hands on Deck

Frozen Pipes Call for All Hands on Deck
Labbe removes a split copper pipe.

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The love was spread among customers this past Valentine’s Day weekend by Steve Labbe, president and owner of Paradigm Plumbing, Heating & Air Conditioning Inc. in Hooksett, New Hampshire, when he and his crew went beyond the call of duty battling frozen pipes.

In the midst of a mild winter, Labbe tuned in to the weather report and saw the winter storm coming, but he had a feeling it would catch plenty unprepared. To help others ward off frozen pipes, the company spread tips of the trade using newsletters and Facebook, but when the storm hit and the temps dropped, the calls poured in.

“Once the storm came in, it was like you couldn’t field the calls fast enough,” he says. “The phones were all lit up.”

With 30 company staff members in total, Labbe says it was all hands on deck.

“You’re trying your hardest to help everybody, and it’s just chaos.”

Race against time

Throughout the weekend, Paradigm fielded 41 calls in all, and Labbe had his hands full as he honed in on a 30-unit apartment building.

“We were pulling out baseboard and looping,” Labbe says, “but everything was so rock-solid frozen in there that you couldn’t get the water to loop around.”

And time was of the essence.

“You have to get the system online, even when it’s down, because if you don’t more of it is going to freeze,” he says. “And if you don’t fix it quick enough you just got yourself into another leak that’s in another part of the wall or ceiling or floor. So there’s this race against time, and you’re constantly under a lot of pressure.”

To help thaw the frozen pipes, he and his licensed tech pulled out an arsenal of equipment that included a Wagner HT1000 1,200-watt heat gun that produces 4,100 Btu with a temperature setting of 750 degrees or 1,000 degrees F as well as a Hot-Shot 320-amp pipe thawing machine from General Pipe Cleaners and a TurboTorch TX-504 (Victor Technologies).

“You’re cutting open pipes to see if there’s any flow and you’re working with the boiler and circulators and valves,” he says. “You’ve got hoses going to them and you’re trying to find where the water is.”

After an exhausting day of repairing leaks and getting the heat in eight units back up and running, Labbe eventually headed home to recoup.

“My wife made me some nice soup, I ended up taking a shower, and I said, ‘Sweetheart, we’re going to celebrate Valentine’s Day tomorrow or the next day. I promise I’ll make it up to you. I’m going to bed.’”

Not done yet

As Labbe started walking up the stairs on his way to bed, his phone rang again; the same apartment complex had yet another line in need of repair. Labbe threw his clothes back on, drove back out to the site, and spotted water pouring out of the ceiling from the second floor to the first.

“I run into the building, and it’s just raining inside this apartment,” he says.

Labbe spun around, ran outside, fell over and slammed onto the ground.

“I went head over tea kettle because the water that was going out turned to ice as it hit the parking lot,” he says.

“I think that any plumber can relate. You’re so engulfed in the moment and you’re trying to prevent damage from happening that you do whatever it takes, whether it’s taking sewage in the face or taking a header because you’re not thinking that the parking lot is going to be frozen.”

Labbe brushed himself off, went to the boiler room, shut the water off, and repaired the pipes using couplings and new solder. He also fixed remaining leaks by cutting out the split pipes. By 11 o’clock that night, his day had finally come to an end.

“Valentine’s Day is a special day for all the guys in this industry who have loved ones and relationships, but we’re the Navy Seals of plumbing,” he says. “We go out when the world needs us, and it gets treacherous out there. We’re first responders. And that’s what we do.”


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