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Frigid blast breaks pipes, costs APS an estimated $230K

Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal

The recent blast of wintry weather caused hundreds of thousands of dollars in damage throughout the Albuquerque area, affecting more than three dozen schools, buildings at the University of New Mexico and hundreds of homes and businesses.

Albuquerque suffered a series of storms after Christmas Day, with blowing snow, low visibility and wind chill factors dipping into the single digits.

With just three days before the new semester starts, crews were working Friday to repair schools hit hard by the cold and storms.

“Since the first freeze after Christmas until today, we have been working straight through,” said John Dufay, executive director of maintenance and operations for Albuquerque Public Schools.

John Dufay, APS’ executive director of maintenance and operations, said about 40 schools were affected by the bitterly cold weather the city has had over the past week or so. Coronado Elementary School was among the harder hit when a pipe broke, flooding the library. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

About 40 schools were damaged by the winter weather, some made worse by the failure of alert systems due to a nationwide internet outage, Dufay told the Journal.

About 15 schools have had problems such as boilers or waterlines breaking, but those were relatively quick to repair. But about 25 of the 40 schools had bigger problems, including flooding.

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Isaac Garay with the Steammatic Co. vacuums up water at Ernie Pyle Middle School after a heating coil broke and flooded a section of the school with 2 to 3 inches of water early Friday morning. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Flooding, burst pipes

On Friday morning, Ernie Pyle Middle School’s hallway was closed off with caution tape and a sign that read “Do not enter! There is a flood!”

Workers were bustling in the hallway, fans were at the ready and vacuums sucked up what was left of tens of thousands of gallons of water – the result of a heating coil that broke early Friday morning.

Hot water pipes – part of the heating system – pump water into a heating coil while a fan blows over those coils to blow hot air into the room. The heating coil broke at Ernie Pyle, leaving 3 inches of water throughout the north wing of the school, which is made up of a hallway, 12 classrooms and some offices.

Daniel Dumas, a seventh-grade New Mexico history teacher, was at the school for professional development Friday morning. He said he was a “little disheartened” when he saw the water damage in his classroom. But he anticipated being able to adapt his lesson plan to a different classroom, although he does rely on some of his room’s technology for certain lessons.

About three miles north, Coronado Elementary was recovering from serious water damage after a fire line broke and flooded the library over winter break.

Failed alert system

Dufay said the nationwide CenturyLink outage late last month was a compounding obstacle to repairs as normal alert systems for such damage went down. Heating units in schools are designed to send an automated message to APS maintenance staff anytime a boiler goes into “trouble mode,” including when the boiler shuts off or when low or high limits are recognized on the equipment.

“One of the things we did notice is we had a few boilers shut down entirely because they had low-level gas pressure,” Dufay said, adding that normally his team would have received an alert but didn’t because of the outage.

Dufay said he expected the majority of work at all 40 schools to be done by Monday, when students return from winter break. If needed, classes may be shuffled into libraries or other available spaces.

In addition to storms and internet outages, APS had to hire security due to theft attempts during repairs.

$230,000 in damage

Dufay said damage is going to cost the district more than $230,000 across the 40 schools and could cost up to $300,000.

APS wasn’t alone; several burst pipes were reported around the University of New Mexico campus during its winter break.

None caused significant damage, with the exception of a student resident facility. According to UNM spokesman Daniel Jiron, a burst pipe caused some flooding and damage to one unit – each apartment-style unit has six bedrooms and two baths – the extent of which was not known.

Central New Mexico Community College had no burst pipes or weather-related infrastructure problems, according to spokesman Brad Moore.

Repair calls skyrocket

Some businesses and homes also were affected by the low temperatures and storms.

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Fans and dehumidifiers were running in the library at Coronado Elementary School to help dry it out after water flooded the building during the winter break. (Jim Thompson/Albuquerque Journal)

Sky Swanson, a manager at TLC Plumbing and Utility, said the company had a surge in calls the past week.

Compared with this time last year, there’s a nearly 42 percent increase for TLC, according to Swanson. In just four days, the company has had 1,600 calls and 745 site visits to homes and businesses.

“Here in New Mexico, it doesn’t get this cold that often, for the most part,” he noted.

Albuquerque Fire Rescue Deputy Chief Gene Gallegos, during a city operational briefing on Wednesday, said 10 to 15 businesses last weekend suffered sprinkler system damage due to burst pipes.

“Make sure that you keep the heat on at night and don’t turn it down too low,” Gallegos said. “A lot of times, the main room where the sprinkler system is housed has its own heating system, and sometimes that goes out. Keep it maintained. Make sure it is working properly.”

Although the storms that dumped snow over Albuquerque and most of northern and central New Mexico has moved out of the state, temperatures will remain low, especially at night. That means pipes could still be susceptible to damage.

The Water Utility Authority is reminding residents to leave a faucet dripping in the sink farthest from the water meter. Moving water is less likely to freeze and will help reduce pressure buildup if a freeze does occur.

According to the National Weather Service, low temperatures in the Albuquerque area will remain below freezing at least through Wednesday with high temperatures in the 40s each day.

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