(Feb. 20, 2015) By Monday night, most of the Ocean City Fire Department knew exactly how the calls were going to go.
The call would come in from the alarm company. It would report a sprinkler activation – but not because of a fire.
With brutal wind pushing already-low temperatures into the single digits, Ocean City experienced another bout of activity early this week relating to frozen and ruptured water pipes.
“I have a theory that, over about two weeks in winter, we find every mistake contractors have made over the past year,” said Igor Conev of Mann Properties.
“Pipes that were run through exteriors without heat, pipes under roofs without insulation, not to mention the older buildings that just weren’t built for winter in the first place.”
Firefighters, plumbers, and property managers like Conev have worked round-the-clock to address freeze-related issues this week, a phenomenon that has become almost an annual event given the last several particularly harsh winters on the shore.
For the OCFD, a rush of calls relating to freeze-fractured pipes is par for the course.
“If you’ve got a broken pipe on the sprinkler side, it’s going to alert us through the alarm system that there’s a sprinkler activation,” said OCFD Chief Chris Larmore. “The other type of call we get are citizens who actually see water rolling out of the building.”
Over the span of a few days during past cold snaps, Larmore estimated that the department could field 200-300 such calls. Many are referred directly to the city’s Water Department if there is no immediate public danger.
“Once an alarm goes off, we’re somewhat bound to respond,” Larmore said. “We also want to look out for cases where water may have created an electrical hazard. It’s not uncommon to walk into a unit with two inches of standing water on the floor.”
With roughly 30,000 condo units – the majority of which are not occupied nine months out of the year – Ocean City presents an interesting problem when it comes to wintertime maintenance.
Common wisdom for many property owners is that vacant homes should be kept at 50 degrees through the winter. But large condo units have many variables. The ability of your unit to retain heat, for instance, depends heavily on where you are in the building. End units, and those on higher floors, are obviously at a greater risk.
“Fifty degrees just doesn’t do it anymore,” Conev said. For most modern condos, 58 is the sweet spot.
“We tell all of our clients to shut the main water off when they’re not there,” Conev said. “But a lot of people think if they leave the heat on 50, they don’t have to shut it off, which just isn’t true.”
Many resort condos that were not built for year-round occupancy have been winterized over past decades, often using heavy insulation around exterior pipes. But this can also be misleading for many property owners.
“Insulation alone is not going to help you,” Conev said. “Insulation keeps the heat from leaving as fast, but after a few days there’s still going to be no heat left to keep.”
The multi-unit nature of condos also creates more room for what is probably best described as user error, according to local professionals.
Because many condos have one water meter for the whole building, owners often pay individually for electricity, but collectively for water. This leads some owners to believe that they can get off free-of-charge by shutting off their electric heat, but leaving the water running all winter.
When temperatures hit single-digits, however, drains can freeze as well, causing tubs and sinks to overflow.
Another common scenario is the owner who, knowing that his or her neighboring units are keeping their heat on through the winter, decides to shut the heat off and rely on leeching from the ambient heat in the rest of the building.
Over time, however, temperature evens out. If, for instance, the outside temperature is only five degrees, an unheated unit will gradually settle (depending on how well-insulated it is) at that temperature. If an adjacent unit is set at 55 degrees, those temperatures will also level out (with the time span again depending on the level of insulation between the units).
After several days of five-degree weather, both units would average at 30 degrees, endangering both.
Under Maryland’s condominium law, condo associations are required to carry a blanket insurance policy for the whole building, Conev noted.
“The insurance companies have gotten very smart about it,” he said. “They typically have, on their declaration page, that heat in every unit must be maintained at all times at a certain number. It depends on the company, the type of building, and the history of losses the building has had.”
This means that, if everyone doesn’t keep his or her heat at the right level, the group policy won’t pay out for water damage. Thus, in turn, condo associations may write this number into their bylaws, making it legally binding on all unit owners.
“If there’s a provision in the bylaws that says the heat must be maintained at a certain level, and if someone doesn’t comply, you can go after that unit owner for negligence,” Conev said.
This often creates a chain of legal actions that is nearly as taxing for resort professionals as the water leaks themselves. The condo’s blanket policy may sue the unit owner’s policy, which may in turn sue the maker of a faulty pipe or appliance, which may in turn sue the policy of the plumber who installed it.
For this reason, the OCFD has a policy of not providing any official opinion on what may have caused broken pipes.
“We encourage our people to make the reports as strictly factual and as broad as we can,” Larmore said. “We can report that a unit is flooded, but what we don’t want to say it appeared to be flooded because of ‘xyz.’ Right away, that puts us in a litigious position.”
If able, fire personnel will stop the water flow, check to make sure there is no threat to public safety, and contact the building’s manager.
“We secure the area, make sure there’s not a danger to the public, and clear the scene,” Larmore said.
While pipe breaks are taxing enough on fire departments and management firms, they are even more of scramble for small businesses.
“We probably had six calls for broken pipes in a few hours yesterday,” said Joe Magnolia of Five-Star Plumbing, Heating, and Cooling. “It doesn’t sound like a lot, but it’s a lot for us in a small time, when we only have three people.”
Magnolia, who relocated to the shore from the Washington, D.C. area, said that mass pipe-freezing is largely dependent on how long a cold front sticks around.
“Even in D.C., where it’s typically a little colder than here, it’s not an every-year occurrence,” he said. “It’s about how cold it gets, and how long it stays cold. When you see the nighttime temperatures go down into the teens and single digits for a couple nights, you know it’s going to happen.”