Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Cold weather heats up business — Plumbers, auto mechanics snap into action when cold hits

By Jenny Neyman
Redoubt Reporter

When it’s 25 below and the furnace goes out or the car won’t start, the last thing customers want to hear is they’ll have to wait for service.

The second last thing they want to hear is the best solution to their problem would have been preventative maintenance.

Nevertheless, that’s the message many central peninsula residents are getting when they look for someone to bring their vehicle or heating system back to life.

It’s not that mechanics or heating and plumbing technicians enjoy telling people the equivalent of “I told you so,” but if people get the message now, it might save them from being in a similar situation in the future.

“Preventative maintenance — get your block heater tested, your coolant tested. Preventative maintenance is key because you never know when this kind of stuff is going to hit,” said Taft Davis, manager of Alyeska Sales and Service in Kenai.

Below-zero temperatures for the last two weeks have kept auto repair, vehicle remote start distributors and heating and plumbing repair businesses busy lately, especially with the recent holidays.

Jeff Bittle, a remote start installer at Rhino Linings in Soldotna, said he’d been working on Christmas orders when the cold weather hit.

“We’re seeing an additional two or three a day. We’re booked out about two weeks right now,” he said.
At Alyeska, orders for block heater installations increased as temperatures decreased, and they’re also seeing vehicles in need of repair.

“No starts, no heat and lots of flat repairs when the temperature drops down,” Davis said. “… Or they overheated if the thermostat sticks. You name it, I’ve got a parking lot full of cars from tow trucks out there right now.”

He said the shop is running about a week behind on repairs.

“Usually we tell people they can get right in, but now I tell them it’ll be Friday, and they’re like, ‘What? What do you mean?’” he said. “It seems like when it gets cold, people will fight their cars for three days. They’ll wrestle with jumper cables and fight with it but after three days they say, ‘Enough. I’m going to pay to have it fixed.’”

The best way to get out of that situation is to avoid getting into it. Regular maintenance and a properly sized, properly installed and properly maintained block heater can keep cars on the road, instead of in an auto garage parking lot waiting for a mechanic to have time to look at it.

Same goes for home heating and plumbing systems.

Rocky Smith, owner of Preferred Plumbing and Heating in Kenai, said Monday that they got about 150 calls over the New Year’s holiday weekend.

“We’ve been busy. Oh yeah. We have three lines and they’re just ringing nonstop,” he said.

Smith said he doesn’t think it’s been cold enough for long enough for underground pipes to be in much danger of freezing, but home freeze-ups are common in these conditions.

“When you have a freeze-up like that it can burst the pipes in your walls, then you get some water damage, too,” he said.

Freeze-ups can be as easy to avoid as making sure the garage door closes all the way or having someone reliable check on a home regularly if the owner is going to be gone, Smith said. He also recommends hooking up a freeze alarm, which can be set to dial a predetermined phone number if the device registers a temperature lower than the threshold at which it’s set.

The big problem is when the threat of freezing comes from home heating systems breaking down. That’s not unusual when temperatures drop and furnaces or other heating systems that involve an electric blower motor kick into overdrive.

“It’s like anything electric, your electric motors have a life of a certain number of hours. If they’re running constantly, they overheat and they just quit,” Smith said. “So that’s what happens there. When they don’t have to run very long or very hard they’ll last a long time.”

To keep heaters running, it’s back to the same mantra:

“Annual maintenance. Annual maintenance. Yep, that’s what we try to push people towards. Then you don’t have to worry about them when it gets really cold out,” Miller said.

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