Freezing pipes and sprinkler heads causing damage at UMass, homes and businesses

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AMHERST - The extended cold snap can cause frostbite on exposed skin, but it can also wreak havoc with pipes exposed to the artic cold.

Community fire departments have been busy responding to broken pipes in people's homes and businesses over the last few days, and while Tuesday was frigid again, the next rush of broken pipes and calls will come when pipes again thaw, said Amherst Fire Chief Tim Nelson.

He said his department Saturday responded to 18 frozen pipe calls.

In some cases, people had gone away and turned their heat too low, something people should not do, he said. They'll spend more in cleanup and water damage repairs than they would in heating the home while they are gone.

Sprinkler heads freezing at the University of Massachusetts, along with a hot water line break, caused flooding on campus over the weekend. The most significant flooding occurred in Holdsworth and Herter halls. But other problems were reported in Lederle Graduate Research Center, Life Science Laboratories, Recreation Center, Marcus Hall and the Mullins Center.

The issues were in places that weren't as well heated, such as hallways, said UMass spokesman Daniel Fitzgibbons. Sprinkler heads are prone to freezing, he said.

"You don't anticipate where it can happen," Fitzgibbons said. On Tuesday, there was a water main break from the cold outside the Lincoln apartments that affected one of the buildings there, he said. He expected water to be restored later in the day.

He said he wasn't sure what the costs of the cleanup work were.

"The custodial staff were pretty busy cleaning up the water. The plumbers also deserve a lot of credit for working 12 to 14 hour days," Dan McCarthy, assistant director for building maintenance at the university's physical plant, said in a press release.

Northampton saw more than a dozen calls for broken pipes.

Northampton Deputy Fire Chief Timothy McQueston said that people also forget to open an access panel to expose pipes to warm air or in some cases the house is empty.

Said Nelson: "Take a look at where your pipes are, open up some space so some warm air can circulate through." If pipes are frozen, shut off the water supply and call a plumber right away, he said. And he cautioned not to defrost the pipe with a torch.

McQueston said people need to have their emergency contact information handy. They need numbers for their heating contractor, plumber and insurance company to get the water cleaned up right away so it doesn't create problems with mold later on.

Holyoke Fire Capt. Anthony Cerruti said frozen pipes and sprinkler systems have kept firefighters busy over the last few days. Problem areas included the Holyoke Mall, which experienced sprinkler system problems in the area of the Hobby Lobby on Saturday night, and at the Burlington Coat Factory the following night.

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