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Published January 07 2014

Robin Huebner Reports: Bitter cold keeps heating and plumbing contractors hopping

FARGO – Temperatures in the double-digits below zero are tough on our bodies, and on the machines and mechanisms meant to keep us warm and comfortable in our homes.

Local plumbers are fielding calls about water pipes freezing, furnaces shutting down and sewer gas building up in homes due to frozen vents.

“Everything seems to go out in this kind of weather,” said Brent Ludwig, HVAC service department manager at Home Heating in Fargo.

The calls from frantic customers have heating and plumbing contractors scrambling.

“We have 11 guys running around town, trying to keep up,” Ludwig said.

At Laney’s in Fargo, they’re able to keep up, for the most part.

But if workers can’t get to customers quickly enough, Laney’s advises them to call around.

“As a company, we want to have people’s business,” said Paul Westerholm, customer service rep at Laney’s, “but, more importantly, we want people to have heat.”

‘The furnace is out’

There can be several reasons a furnace goes out in this weather.

The first thing technicians tell homeowners to do is check their vents.

Most new high-efficiency gas furnaces are vented with two PVC pipes, said Bob Landsverk, HVAC technician at Laney’s.

“One blows air out, the other sucks air in,” he said.

The furnaces are equipped with safety switches that shut the furnace down if either pipe is plugged.

While an exhaust vent will occasionally freeze up, the intake pipe is most often the culprit.

“If you see ice hanging off a vent, that’s usually the exhaust vent,” Landsverk said.

A frozen intake pipe isn’t as obvious, partly because of its elbow-type design.

“That’s the one that you won’t realize is clogged until you reach up inside,” he said.

Some furnace vents are on the roof, while others are on the side – where a homeowner can easily inspect them.

“They can take a stick or bang on it to loosen the ice,” said Jason Jundt, service manager at Robert Gibb & Sons in Fargo.

It’s a fix Jundt had to use himself when he and others showed up for work one morning last week.

“It was 45 degrees in our shop,” Jundt said.

The furnace had quit overnight because of a plugged intake pipe.

Plugged sewer vents

Another pipe that can get clogged in this weather is the sewer vent.

Ben Wolters, service plumber at Laney’s, said a snow and ice cap can form over the sewer vent top from moisture created by venting the plumbing.

“If you’re starting to smell sewer gas, call the plumber,” Wolters said.

While some homeowners can clear the ice or melt it away with hot water themselves, many won’t want to because it involves climbing onto a slippery roof.

Wolters said the longer-term remedy is a vent “T.”

The T-shaped copper tubing extends about 5 feet into the vent and sticks out about a foot on each side, and keeps the vent from freezing over.

Frozen water pipes

Another cold weather problem is a frozen water pipe.

Some of those emergency calls come from apartment building managers.

“The furnace goes out, they don’t catch it in time and water lines freeze,” Ludwig said.