Arctic blast raises risk of frozen pipes, unresponsive vehicles

  • A low temperature alarm for the Football Performance Center appears on a computer screen monitored by Jason Burbank, who is the campus energy engineer at the University of Massachusetts, Wednesday. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • The University of Massachusetts is seen at sunset Wednesday in Amherst. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • Jason Burbank, who is the campus energy engineer at the University of Massachusetts, monitors temperatures in campus buildings from his office in the Physical Plant, Wednesday. In this case, he found that fans used to circulate heat in the Design Building had shut down. He was able to restore power to them from his computer. GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • The Central Heating Plant at the University of Massachusetts, shown Wednesday, is actually a combined heat and power plant. About 75 percent of the power used annually on the campus is generated by the plant. About half of the heat used by the campus is a by-product of energy generation. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • The Central Heating Plant at the University of Massachusetts, shown Wednesday, is actually a combined heat and power plant. About 75 percent of the power used annually on the campus is generated by the plant. About half of the heat used by the campus is a by-product of energy generation. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

  • The University of Massachusetts, Wednesday, Dec. 27, 2017. —GAZETTE STAFF/JERREY ROBERTS

Published: 12/27/2017 9:23:40 PM

An extended stretch of arctic weather could create a series of problems for homeowners, communities and institutions, including water pipes freezing in buildings and vehicles not starting easily.

The week of below-freezing temperatures is a particular issue at the University of Massachusetts, where many of the buildings currently sit empty during winter break, and where the entire Amherst campus will be shut down Thursday and Friday.

“This one here that’s just starting is a long forecast, so it looks like it may be challenging,” Ray Jackson, director of the UMass physical plant, said Wednesday.

It has been a long time since Jackson can remember a cold spell predicted to go on for such a long stretch, but he’s not worried. “I feel we’re up to the task,” Jackson said.

To take on the weather, Jackson said buildings will no longer have the customary “energy setbacks” when unoccupied. Instead, the internal temperature will be kept high so pipes don’t freeze.

“We also put on extra staff to monitor the buildings,” he said.

This includes making remote observations from a command center, where a section of a building that isn’t getting enough heat can be pinpointed and corrected.

Extra roving staff will also sweep through buildings to make sure doors, windows and loading-dock bays are closed.

More workers will also be on hand to receive oil deliveries. Because of the cold weather, the university can’t use natural gas pipes.

Starting vehicles

When Amherst Department of Public Works employees arrived for work Wednesday morning, the municipal trash truck’s engine refused to start.

The truck appeared to be a casualty of the extremely cold temperatures, said Assistant Superintendent Amy Rusiecki. When the temperature dips below 5 to 10 degrees, oils inside the truck’s engine gel up, she said.

Though the inoperable trash truck didn’t cause headaches for the DPW, coming as it did during a week when removing garbage from the schools could be rescheduled, Rusiecki said it is a reminder of how limited indoor space for the fleet of vehicles is a concern.

Bitterly cold weather means figuring out which vehicles to leave out overnight, and which should remain inside. “It’s about making sure our trucks are able to roll if an emergency happens,” Rusiecki said.

Reached Wednesday afternoon, Northampton Fire Chief Duane Nichols said so far the cold weather snap has been going pretty well for the department.

“We’ve done it for years and years. It’s just making sure everything is ready to go for the cold weather,” Nichols said.

Nichols said the department is treating the fuel to make sure it is ready for cold weather operations.

Icy roads, removing snow

In Granby, maintenance is also high on the list.

“We’re still recovering from the last series of storms,” said Dave Desrosiers, superintendent for Granby’s Highway Department. “We have got a lots of odds and ends and maintenance on trucks.”

Currently, he said, one truck is experiencing engine difficulties and having trouble starting. It should be replaced by next season.

For local highway departments, ice storms like last Friday’s are far more challenging than the average blizzard, requiring more salt spread with greater frequency, and longer, more exhausting hours for employees. At the Granby Highway Department, all employees worked on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.

“You’re constantly being disturbed and you’re not getting much sleep,” Desrosiers said. “It’s been tough with the series — I’d much rather go through a 2-foot blizzard than the series we just had.”

Rusiecki said icy patches on roads are the biggest concern during these extended cold stretches, in part because ice is difficult to remove and treat.

Water mains, service lines

Though a water main break occurred in Springfield early Wednesday and took several hours to repair, Rusiecki said Amherst’s water mains are at least 5 feet below ground, meaning they are not likely to freeze and break.

“We bury them deep enough that they shouldn’t be exposed to the cold,” Rusiecki said.

The department is more worried about service lines to individual homes rupturing. Rusiecki said that even though the town doesn’t own these, the DPW may assist in hooking up a home to a fire hydrant or a neighbor’s water line until repairs are made.

Slips and falls

Amherst Fire Chief Walter “Tim” Nelson said he is most nervous about the well-being of those who venture outdoors. Slippery sidewalks have prompted several ambulance responses in recent days, and he anticipates that treacherous conditions will continue to pose risks for pedestrians.

“With all the snow and ice, it’s not going to take much for you to fall,” Nelson said.

Indoor pipes

At UMass, Jackson said that as of early Wednesday, there was no damage to report, though problems with pipes might not be revealed until after the cold ends.

“Sometimes you don’t find out about it until the next warm spell,” he said of burst pipes.

Unlike the high-tech observations that UMass can make, residents can follow advice put out by the state fire marshal’s office to prevent frozen pipes, including letting the water drip from the faucet, opening kitchen and bathroom cabinet doors to allow warmer air to circulate around the plumbing and keeping the thermostat set to at least 55 degrees.

Nelson cautions against homeowners using blowtorches to unblock ice. In fact, the state fire marshal’s office reminds people not to use open flame devices to deice pipes. Instead, it suggests using an electric heating pad or towels soaked in hot water wrapped around the pipe, or an electric hair dryer.

“If you end up with a frozen pipe, call the plumber,” Nelson said.

Nelson said homeowners should also know where the water shut-off valve is. “That can do a lot to stave off a large amount of damage,” Nelson said.

In Northampton, Nichols said he hasn’t noticed an increase in calls for service, which usually comes when pipes start thawing.

“Once we get some warm weather, that’s when we start to see the problems,” Nichols said.

Space heaters are popular, but should be kept away from combustibles, as well as children and pets.

“Some of the worst fires we’ve had are because of misused space heaters,” Nelson said.

Battling blazes

Fighting fires in very cold weather will always be a challenge, Nelson said, but the state’s rehab vehicle, which can be summoned to the scenes of fires, is a warm and dry place for firefighters to go as they battle a blaze.

Firefighters will wear several layers during winter fires and try to limit their exposure to the elements.

“You know you’re going to get wet, you know you’re going to get cold,” Nelson said.

Continuing to drink fluids is essential for the firefighters.

“Folks don’t think they can get dehydrated, but they can, even more so because the air is so dry,” Nelson said.

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