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For some, polar vortex brought a bill for frozen pipes

WESTERLY — When he looked through his window at the Pawcatuck River Tuesday morning, Don Eldridge said he did a double take. For the first time in his 40 years of living by the river, he saw large chunks of ice floating downstream — mini-icebergs. Although he’s seen ice on the river before, he said, “I’ve never seen anything that big and that high.”

The floating ice chunks were just one result of this week’s abnormally cold weather, caused by a vortex of arctic air that drifted south and east over the continental United States. There were also a few instances of frozen pipes bursting in public places, including Saturday at the Westerly Library and Sunday at the Hampton Inn in Mystic.

Many homes have also had pipes freezing and bursting. At Sam Bliven Jr. Plumbing & Heating in Westerly, all hands were busy dealing with frozen pipes. “A good 15 houses” over the past few days, a secretary at the business said, noting that the problem occurs anytime there’s a low wind-chill factor.

To keep the water flowing, homeowners are advised to turn the heat up, open unheated cabinets and closets that have pipes in the walls behind them, and keep faucets dripping.

At Lathrop Insurance Agency, John Lathrop, the president, said his office will typically see claims for water damage after a thaw, when the water starts to run out of the broken pipes.

“They don’t realize it until the pipes start thawing,” he said. However, his company does handle claims for broken pipes every winter, he said, adding that “some winters are worse than others.”

Frozen pipes most often occur in new construction, where a break in insulation hasn’t been noticed yet, and in unattended summer homes, Lathrop noted.

Many summer residents drain their pipes and turn off their heat for the winter, so it doesn’t matter how cold they get. But some people leave the heat on low, he said, and if something malfunctions when no one is there to notice, there can be problems. “It’s a really good idea to have a low-temperature alarm,” he said.

Lathrop recommended that people who are going to be away from their homes for more than a day turn off their main water valve. That way, if a pipe breaks, only the water already in the pipe will leak into the home. If the main is open, there will be a continuous flow. It’s the difference between $150 to $200 worth of damage, and $50,000 to $100,000 in damage, he said.

Lathrop also recommended that property owners consider automatic delivery of heating fuel.

If they don’t have automatic delivery, and they run out, insurance won’t pay for the damages caused by a lack of heat, he said. But if the fuel company fails to deliver enough, then insurance will pay for damages.

The cold weather also cut short Save the Bay’s weekend cruises on the Pawcatuck River. Running the cruises for the first time, Save the Bay intended to stop them after Jan 1., said coastkeeper David Prescott. After seeing how popular the cruises were, Save the Bay decided to extend the cruises until the weekend of Jan. 4 and 5. But after they saw the weather forecast, the organizers decided to stick with their original schedule.

“There had already been a little ice on the river,” said Prescott. “We said we can’t risk it. It was a good call.”

After another cold day today — it was 7 degrees in the early morning — warmer temperatures are in the forecast for the weekend, with highs in the 40s. While it won’t be tropical, at least pipes won’t be freezing.

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