Plumbers under the cosh as burst pipe panic spreads
Thousands of emergency calls to plumbers and water services have been made as households across Northern Ireland face a Christmas without running water.
In the past three days more than 7,500 people contacted NI Water, while the Housing Executive is facing “unprecedented demand” with 10,000 call-outs since last Friday.
The cold snap has caused pipes to freeze and plumbers are struggling to cope with the demand, leaving residents with little hope of repairs until after the festive season.
But experts warn that worse is to come, with contractors on high alert to deal with emergencies when the thaw sets in.
The Belfast Telegraph accompanied a plumber to find out how they are dealing with increased demand during the big freeze.
Chris Rearcy, who runs Unique Plumbing and Heating in Belfast, invited the paper on a call-out to a house in Jordanstown where a pipe had burst and flooded a garage.
“This isn’t the worst we’ve seen today — we’ve seen pipes covered in huge blocks of ice, flooding where people were knee-deep in water,” said Chris. “A lot of people seem to panic when pipes burst, we’ve had people crying and not knowing what to do.
“Over the past week it’s been non-stop, we must have had more than 40 calls a day. They’re all about frozen heating pipes, mains water pipes, regulators.
“I’ve been a plumber for eight years and this is the busiest I’ve ever known it. We didn’t stop till 10pm last night and it’ll be the same tonight.”
Chris, who works with trainee plumber Jonny Cooper, may even have to work on Christmas Day. “Water doesn’t stop running so there will be call-outs,” he said.
“I don’t know what I’ll do if an old woman phones me up and tells me a pipe has burst on Christmas Day, I’d find it hard to say no.”
The pair, who call themselves the “winter doctors”, work by torchlight on the flooded areas — the phone ringing constantly with calls from anxious customers looking for help.
They said the best advice for people whose pipes have frozen is not to touch them. “Wait until the thaw — that’s when the damage will be done anyway,” said Chris.
Homeowner Adrian McLaughlin (42), an electrician and owner of a chimney sweeping business, said he was extremely grateful the plumbers had come out to his house in the icy conditions.
He said: “I only noticed the leak this morning when I saw the water flowing out of the garage and down the steps towards the house.
“I lifted everything out of the way and called a plumber — it was getting quite dangerous for myself and my wife.
“I guess it’s just one of those things — you come to expect it in this weather.
“But they’re doing a great job, they’re working so hard.”
Just as Chris and Jonny finish fixing the burst pipe, they find another three cracks in the water system behind the washing machine and get back to work.
“It’s the nature of the job at this time of year,” said Chris.
“We’ve got another 20 call-outs left today and that’s only going to increase.
“I might have to switch my phone off on Christmas Day or I’ll never get a break.”
ADVICE FOR CONSUMERS
- Leave your central heating on for short periods during the day to circulate heat and stop pipes freezing.
- Ensure water pipes are properly protected with lagging, especially those in exposed areas.
- Get to know your pipework: locate your stop valve, check your meter regularly and fix dripping taps.
- If you suspect a burst water main, call NI Waterline on 08457 440088.
- To defrost a frozen pipe, try wrapping warm cloths or a hot water bottle around it to heat it slowly.