The freeze just after the first of the year burst pipes all over Payson, prompting 300 calls from homeowners and flooding several houses.
The problem affected so many homeowners, that the town for the first time in history will waive its normal $15 service fee ($50 after hours) for full-time residents.
Alarmed water department officials saw the effects of the freeze on the well monitoring system, with so much water gushing from ruptured pipes that water usage levels rose by a million gallons in three days — to levels normally seen only during the peak of summer.
In one vacant home, the fire suppression sprinkler system in the house burst, flooding the home with 90,000 gallons of water.
In another home, burst pipes flooded the interior with 45,000 gallons of water before town crews could turn off the water at the meter.
The plunge in temperatures into the single digits several nights running caused widespread problems, said Buzz Walker, who runs the town’s water department.
“In the 40 years I’ve been here, this is the third time we’ve had a prolonged string of sub-10-degree days,” said Walker. “Generally, when you have several nights that cold you just know you’re going to have a problem.”
The problem was exacerbated by the many empty, foreclosed homes. Most second-home owners know enough to turn off their water over the winter. But many of the banks that own foreclosed homes left the water on.
“It’s the sort of thing that could happen to anybody, but then a lot of these were foreclosed homes where I guess the bank didn’t think that the pipes would freeze up here,” said Walker.
The single, on-call water department worker had 45 calls over the weekend, with a torrent of additional calls flooding into the next week.
Walker said that the department will waive the service call fee, normally charged to turn off water at the main.
Homeowners must call a plumber on their own to fix the pipes on their property. The department will also not charge for the extra water that gushed from the pipes.
The fee waivers only apply to full-time residents — not to second-home owners or banks that own foreclosed homes.
In that case, the owners should have taken steps before the freeze to turn off the water in the vacant homes, noted Walker.
The freeze underscored the need to prepare water systems for winter.
That includes turning off outdoor irrigation systems and properly insulating pipe exposed to the cold. In many cases, plumbers can also install electric wires that essentially warm the pipes when temperatures plunge.