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Arctic blast wreaks havoc as pipes burst

by AMY QUINLIVAN
Mineral Independent | January 31, 2024 12:00 AM

Montana endured a record-breaking cold snap during the second week of January. Mineral County residents felt the brutal plunge in mercury for roughly a five-day stretch, before thermometers slowly crept back above 32 degrees.

And although the arctic air has given way to unusually spring like temperatures for the past several days. Homeowners, businesses, and local plumbers are just now wading their way through an astounding number of frozen pipes and flooded crawl spaces.

Rocky Covey, of St. Regis, has been in the plumbing trade for most of his life. His father was a plumber up in Alaska, a place where frozen pipes and pipefitting go hand in hand. 

But Covey who’s been attempting to ease his way into retirement from the plumbing field, remarked, “That cold we just had, that was not normal. That was cold! I saw things froze that never freeze.”

“I’m used to seeing PVC pipes crack, but this time there was nothing left they just shattered,” explained Covey.

His routine plumbing work involves keeping numerous rentals homes, and trailer houses up to spec, and winterized each year for property owners. But when the deep freeze hit the weekend of Jan. 13, Covey knew he was going to be getting phone calls. In the days following he was inundated with dozens of voicemails from homeowners and local businesses needing pipes thawed, or worse, they were experiencing flooding.

“I was so busy with all the calls coming in I couldn’t answer because I was down in a crawl space full of water and didn’t want to pick up the phone,” laughed Covey.

In Superior, Covey helped repair a burst pipe at an office building. The crawlspace had filled with 18 inches of water and started to flood the businesses space before the leak was discovered. He spent all of last week going from house to house, trailer after trailer, thawing out frozen pipes, and re-piping entire residences. 

From one end of the county to the other, flooding cropped at the lodge of the Black Diamond Guest Ranch, and even the Mineral Community Hospital faced broken pipes in their emergency room.

Covey noted that the places he had winterized himself, didn’t freeze. That’s his biggest piece of advice for locals, go ahead and expect this kind of freeze each year. 

He encouraged, “People have got to be prepared. If it’s the summer, get someone out to winterize properly the whole place, check all the piping, and insulation. And if you didn’t do it this summer, do it now with this warm spell, because it could happen again before this winter is over.”

Prepared is one thing property manager, Isaiah McGuffey thought he was when the below zero stretch arrived. His business, Homestead Management oversees several vacation rentals, as well as a residential homes for rent in the area. 

He admitted, “I was prepared as I could be, more prepared than last year. We would have gotten by with a minus 20-degree day, but we just couldn’t deal with multiple days of negatives.”

At one of the Airbnb’s he manages, even with a space heater running nonstop out in the well house; with three days of subzero temps, the little heater gradually couldn’t keep up. The water had frozen there too.

All together McGuffey had to contend with 10 different buildings with either frozen or busted pipes. Six of them suffered some form of water damage from ruptured water lines. 

He mentioned, “It’s funny at first the cold spell passes and everyone thinks they’ve gotten through it unscathed, but plumbing problems manifest themselves later.” After those pipes have thawed and temperatures return to normal that’s when people find a wet surprise.

Another dilemma that McGuffey faced was septic and sewer overflow in various trailer courts he oversees. Due to everyone running their water for great lengths of time to ward of the freezing, the septic systems got overwhelmed along with it.

There were reports from locals of places freezing up that never had issues before. McGuffey exclaimed, “My parents have lived in their home for 21 years and this is the first time their pipes froze.”

As an experienced plumber, Covey shared some helpful advice. He suggested, “First thing is, know for sure you have your crawl space sealed. No air getting in. This solves most of the problems.” Simple things like making sure vents are closed can save homeowners a lot of headaches.

Another proposal Covey added, “Get away from bad products, and upgrade when and if you can. Swap out old copper, PVC, and CPVC pipes with newer PEX pipes that can handle negative temperatures and flex without bursting.”

For those in trailer homes especially, Covey shared a trick for future cold snaps. “People with trailers usually they’ve got dryers vented into the crawl space. Turn it on for an hour.” If there is decent insulation on the trailer skirting, this method will push warm air into the space and keep it in there for several hours.

Covey expressed, “Back in the day, [up in Alaska] my Dad would love this time of year, that kind of bitter cold. Where it’s cold for about a three week stretch. He would send me and my brother out in different directions. We had three space heaters, once the first place thawed, we let Dad know, and moved on to the next one.” He chuckled, “Back then houses had all sorts of stuff, copper, galvanized, hosing, car parts…. half the job was just removing all the junk.”

Thankfully for Covey his days of being a teenage apprentice to his Dad while plumbing up North, it equipped him in valuable ways for these Montana cold snaps where he now helps friends and neighbors with broken pipes, all around Mineral County.


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