Leading up to last week's unprecedented winter storm, Texans were warned to prepare for ice and snow the same way they would for a Category 5 hurricane. Five days after the storm landed, they were finding out the level of damage is not dissimilar.
At least 58 people have died nationwide, according to The New York Times, with Texas accounting for the majority of fatalities. The utility-tracking website poweroutage.us estimated that rolling blackouts left as many as 4.2 million Texans without power on Tuesday, though that number had dropped to just over 30,120 by Sunday morning.
And so many pipes have burst that plumbers are overwhelmed with 10 times the normal demand, Austin NBC affiliate KXAN reported. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott urged residents to shut off their water to prevent yet more busted pipes and preserve municipal system pressure. In addition, he announced Wednesday that the state was granting provisional licenses to out-of-state plumbers who come to help and issuing waivers for people who have plumbing licenses but haven't completed continuing education credits in the past two years.
"The goal obviously is we’re trying to make sure that we will have as many plumbers available as possible to help everybody deal with their plumbing challenges," he said at a press conference. Abbott added that Texas is also issuing temporary licenses for out-of-state insurance adjusters arriving to help deal with disaster claims.
"It is going to be crazy for a little while down there," said Paul Abrams, director of public relations at Roto-Rooter Plumbing and Water Cleanup. "I would bet it's pretty similar to the effects of a hurricane."
Swimming pool owners may face additional plumbing issues
It's common in Texas and other Southern states to leave them open year-round, which means many didn't winterize – or drain water-circulating equipment – before the cold hit. Now they have to wait until the ice thaws to examine the full extent of damage to their pumps, filter and heaters.
"The rolling blackouts just compounded the extreme cold temperatures that we weren't accustomed to," says Casey Gardner, owner of No Worries Pool Care in Flower Mound, Texas, and a regional director for the Independent Pool and Spa Association.
Forcing controlled outages was the only way to avert an even more dire blackout in Texas, said Bill Magness, president of the Electric Reliability Council of Texas, the nonprofit corporation that runs the state power grid and manages 90% of its electricity supply.
"What we're protecting against is worse," he said.
Nonetheless, the council's handling of the storm has been called out by Texas residents as well as state and local officials – including the governor, who labeled its performance a "total failure" and promised an investigation and reform. Early delays in relaying information cost homeowners time that could have been spent buying additional generators or preparing their indoor and outdoor plumbing for the extreme conditions to come. And that could ultimately play a factor in whether pool owners can get their repairs covered under their homeowner's insurance policies.
Pool owners seek help from Northerners
Winter hats in hand, other Southerners who had never winterized their pools before turned to fellow owners above the Mason-Dixon line for tips on protecting their pumps and pipes.
"Dear people on the North, we apologize for mocking you for winterizing your pools," wrote one member of a Facebook pool care group earlier this week. "We apologize for posting pictures of our open pools and swimming in October. Please forgive us and teach us your ways. We will need lots of help this week and even more when our pools thaw out."
A lot of customers have reached out through social media and have been given advice on how to drain their equipment to protect it as much as they can – provided they still had power, Gardner says.
What can you do at this point?
If you see cracks anywhere, it may be too late and all you can do is turn the power off until you can get a service tech out to inspect the damage, Gardner says, noting that "anything that's plastic" is vulnerable to cracking: "The valves are going to be your most susceptible part." Pump, filters and heat exchangers may also pose potential problems.
If your gear looks OK but you didn't drain your pump before the freezing temperatures set in or you lost power, "turn off the power at the breaker, drain the pump and lower the water line to below the skimmer and return jets if your pool has a liner," recommends Tyler Detota, the lead pool technician at Able Gunite Pools and Spas in Knoxville, Tennessee.
You can plug and drain the valves and the heater as well. And while you're at it, remove any clamps. (Detota suggests placing any pieces of hardware you remove in the pump basket so you can easily locate and reinstall them later.)
"You want to give the water room to expand," he explains.
But why do all that if the power is back on now? Utility officials have warned that limited rolling blackouts are still possible. If that's the case, you do not want your pump struggling to run once the power comes back on, inviting further damage.
Is it worth it to continually chip away at the ice in the pool itself? Probably not, Detota says.
That may come as a relief to Jennifer Baker Phillips of Tulsa, Oklahoma, who told USA TODAY that she and her husband had been trying to break up and remove chunks of ice from their in-ground saltwater pool but found they couldn't keep up.
"We have settled on keeping the water open at the base of the waterfall and making sure the intake at the skimmer is free of ice," she said Tuesday after a night of subzero temperatures. "We have to set alarms overnight to get up multiple times and go out and break the ice. My husband and I take turns, every two hours."
Detota is hesitant to advise using tools to break up the ice in the pool itself – especially if you have any plaster in your pool (such as a tanning ledge) or stone on the side of a hot tub or water feature, saying it can do more harm than good.
"I had a customer try to break up the ice on his tanning ledge and he threw his hammer into the pool. It caused a crack in the plaster," he recalls.
Detota also recommends emailing your pool care company as soon as possible to book an appointment to have someone check for any damage. That way, there's a record of the request and you secure a place in line.
Thaw out and inspect the damage
"The next phase is to thaw out a little bit and start assessing how catastrophic the damage is," Gardner says. The average wait time for a service appointment with his company is currently about a week. (But be patient. Resist the urge to book with the first repair guy you can find. "Make sure you're hiring quality contractors that are licensed and insured," he says.)
In the meantime, prepare yourself for repair bills. Gardner estimates parts and labor for a new filter will run between $1,100-$1,300. A new heater will run you $3,600 with labor and tax included. And replacing one or two pipes can cost $450.
Making matters worse: "We're going to have a shortage of inventory for repair parts," he says. "There was already a parts shortage due to COVID and there's been a high volume of people wanting to build new pools."
Will your homeowner's insurance policy cover pool repairs that occur as a result of freezing temperatures? Or what if you have a home warranty that also covers your pool?
That depends on your insurance broker and whether it requires additional riders for swimming pools, Gardner says.
"Every claim is unique and decisions about coverage will be made on an individual basis," Farmers Insurance Chief Claims Compliance Officer Jim Taylor told USA TODAY in a statement. "That said, most standard Farmers homeowners policies may provide coverage for damage to swimming pool equipment like pumps, filters and pipes if homeowners take proper precautions, such as maintaining heat in the pool plumbing system (if a heating system is present), or draining the plumbing system of water in advance of a freeze event. It’s important to note that homeowners may also be covered for damage resulting from the escape of water from damaged pool equipment."
It's worth a try, though, Taylor says: "We encourage everyone who has suffered damage to call their insurer to file a claim."
You may not have as much luck making claims on your home warranty, however.
Home Warranty of America told USA TODAY that freezing damage would likely not be covered as weather is considered a "Force Majeure" or "Act of God" situation.
"There's probably going to be a lot of people upset" by out-of-pocket expenses if they didn't take any precautions to protect their equipment before the storm, Gardner says.
What about the next time?
This may not be the last freeze of the season for the South – or even this week if some forecasts are to be believed. Should you give in and shut down the pool for the rest of winter? Not necessarily, Detota says. Just stay on top of the situation.
"If you hear about cold, cold weather coming, get it winterized immediately to save your behind," he warns, noting that it only takes about an hour to do and another hour to restore once things warm up.
And don't wait until temperatures reach freezing to drain and plug your equipment, either. "Do it when it's in the 30s," he advises.
The whole experience has served as a lesson for Chuck Savino of Parker Texas, a suburb in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
"When this is over, I plan to work with my pool builder on coming up with a Texas winterizer plan," he said. "The era of running the pump 24 hours a day during bad weather is over. I can't trust the electric company anymore."
Contributing: Ryan Miller, USA TODAY; Chuck Lindell, Asher Price, The Austin American-Statesman; The Associated Press
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Winter storm: Southern pool owners wait to learn extent of damage