Cold headaches

Record low brings burst pipes and record energy demand

GRU worker Travis Riley looks for parts to repair a broken waterline Monday along the 800 block of Southeast 12th Avenue. Record low temperatures caused lines throughout the community to burst.

Rob C. Witzel/Staff photographer
Published: Tuesday, January 12, 2010 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 11, 2010 at 10:42 p.m.

North Floridians on Monday faced another record low temperature along with more burst pipes and an all-time peak demand for electricity.

Look for more of the same today. And later this week, when warmer weather finally arrives, even more plumbing problems are likely. After that, residents will be bracing for higher-than-average utility bills for warming houses during the record-setting cold.

The record cold in Gainesville early Monday resulted in a record demand for electricity from Gainesville Regional Utilities. Gainesville broke a record for this date by dropping to 17 degrees early Monday. The old record for Jan. 11 was 20 degrees, set in 1959.

GRU officials said the usage record of 468 megawatts was set at 7:23 a.m. The utility's previous record for instantaneous winter peak demand was 451 megawatts and was set Thursday morning.

"One megawatt of electricity is the equivalent of about the energy load for 200 homes," said Karen Alford, GRU's director of power operations.

Throughout this cold snap, the utility has noticed that demand for electricity has consistently been 65 percent to 70 percent above normal. Like utilities throughout the state, GRU is urging customers to use only the electricity they really need until warmer weather arrives to avoid a situation like the state faced in late 1989. On Christmas Day 1989, unusually cold weather statewide resulted in rolling brown-outs and some outages as utilities struggled to keep up with demand.

In a news release issued Monday afternoon, GRU General Manager Bob Hunzinger said turning off unnecessary electrical devices was important because "we want to ensure an uninterrupted flow of electricity to all customers."

The organization responsible for overseeing the state's electrical supplies, the Florida Reliability Coordinating Council, has noted that record demand was apparent statewide during the record-setting cold snap over the past 10 days.

Because of the intense demand for electricity, Hunzinger said, "We ask our customers to be diligent in conserving energy to reduce system demand and to keep their electric bills lower."

GRU is asking customers to take the following steps to reduce electric use: lower thermostat settings by 5 to 10 degrees, turn off all unnecessary lights, minimize the use of major appliances, reduce the use of sprinkler and pool pumps, close curtains and blinds to help insulate homes and buildings against heat loss, and minimize electricity use immediately before and after work when demand typically peaks.

GRU customers dependent on electric-powered, life-sustaining medical equipment are urged to check their backup systems.

"Temperatures are forecast to warm by midweek, and we expect power demand to return to normal ranges," Hunzinger said. "We appreciate our customers' patience and assistance during this unusual time."

The record cold Monday morning left some Alachua County School District classrooms without heat and at least 137 Gainesville-area homes with one or more burst pipes.

GRU spokesman Dan Jesse said the sub-freezing temperatures for several hours overnight are to blame for scattered water problems.

The utility received 137 requests to turn off water into homes so that broken pipes could be repaired, said Ron Herget, GRU's director of water and wastewater engineering.

The best way to avoid burst pipes is to open a tap at the farthest point in the house (from where the water enters) to keep water moving through the pipes," Herget said. "We know that many people are doing that because we are seeing demand at about 30-percent over normal for this time of year - about 30 million gallons a day right now."

The University of Florida dealt with at least 10 weather-related incidents Monday such as burst pipes and heating systems overtaxed by the cold, said Eric Cochran, UF associate director for operations.

In Williamson Hall, James Channell was working on his computer Sunday when green water started cascading through the ceiling. He was able to save his computer from damage.

"If I wouldn't have been here, it would have been nailed," he said.

The cause was a broken pipe in the heating and cooling system. The water is colored with a non-toxic dye, used to distinguish the chilled water in the system from potable water.

As maintenance crews finished cleaning the scene Morning morning, they received a call about a similar situation in Bartram Hall.

A broken pipe in the rooftop sprinkler system caused water to leak through the ceiling.

The top section of the sprinkler system typically contains only air to prevent freezing, building manager Pete Ryschkewitsch said. The system appeared to have malfunctioned, he said, causing water to flow in the system and freeze.

"It's specifically designed to prevent this," he said.

Cochran said the cold weather caused pipes to freeze at two other UF facilities - the TREEO Center and the physical plant's Building 700.

At Elmore Hall, he said, a frozen lift station caused sewage to back up into the building's toilets. A cleanup has been completed and the system has been unclogged, he said.

"Our guys have been out there in the cold all day dealing with this," he said.

Most of the schools in Alachua County had either a water or heat issue Monday, district spokeswoman Jackie Johnson said.

Heating problems tended to affect just one or two classrooms or a section of a school.

"We are asking our parents to help their children to dress warmly and in layers so that they can peel away the layers as they get warm," Johnson said.

National Weather Service meteorologist Marie Trabert said a blast of reinforcing cold air from the north was responsible for the record-setting cold overnight.

"But things will improve later this week when a storm system forms in the Gulf (of Mexico) that will shift the winds and moderate the temperatures," Trabert said Monday morning. "That will shut off the northerly blast of cold air."

Normally, North Florida has average daytime highs of 66 and overnight lows of 42 in January, according to Weather Service records. The shift in weather later this week should move temperatures into that range, Trabert said.

But not today.

This morning's low is forecast at 20, Wednesday's is 26 and Thursday's is 32. Monday morning's record-setting low also set a record for the number of consecutive days of freezing temperatures at 10 days. The old record of nine consecutive days was set in December 1960.

Around the state, Miami had a low of 36 and Key West was 42. At the other extreme, Tallahassee registered a low of 14.

Cold weather typically stays through January and into February. The average date for the last freeze locally is Feb. 22.

The protracted cold snap is expected to continue creating problems in the days and weeks ahead. Herget said that as pipes completely thaw in the warmer temperatures later this week, additional breaks could become apparent.

"We anticipate more people discovering that they had frozen pipes that they were not using," Herget said.

And, utility officials said there will be a price to pay for staying warm and keeping water flowing during the record cold. Utility bills could double or triple for some households because in addition to increased use, fuel prices have been rising.

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