The calls started coming in during the night on Monday, and by the end of the week, Aaron Mulder had 800 messages from residents requesting help with their busted water lines.
“We’ve really been trying to just do it in the order that they came in just because I feel like really everything, everybody, is an emergency right now,” said Mulder, owner of the locally owned franchise Mr. Rooter Plumbing of San Antonio. “And it is unfair to put one emergency in front of the other.”
Mulder has five trucks out doing service calls and is prioritizing residential customers with active leaks, the result of frozen pipes that burst under pressure during last week’s devastating winter storms.
With Texas already at high risk for storm-related damage from hail and hurricanes, a spokeswoman for the Insurance Council of Texas told the Texas Tribune that she expects there will be hundreds of thousands of claims filed following the storm’s thaw – not only for homeowners but also renters, business owners, and car owners.
Since Sunday, Jacob Casanova of Casanova Plumbing Services has been putting in 13-hour days, mugs of hot coffee at hand, repairing busted pipes throughout the far Northside neighborhood of Stone Oak.
A 20-year plumber, Casanova deftly cut into walls and repaired pipes while answering call after call from desperate homeowners and asking them to text him an address, promising he’d be there in a day or so.
Though it was slow going, navigating treacherous road conditions even as temperatures rose on Friday, the plumber and his apprentice John Crouch kept at it, trying to reach as many homes as they could.
But his waiting list was growing and people were desperate for help.
On Thursday, San Antonio Water System President and CEO Robert Puente said there were about 100,000 water leaks throughout the city, a situation caused when the water inside of pipes freezes, expands, and stresses the pipes to the breaking point. That SAWS estimate comes from the low water pressure many residents are experiencing and the 3,500 daily calls the agency is receiving.
Mulder said some of the calls he received were from people who lost water service but didn’t know why.
“It was frustrating because there was such a lack of clarity … from the water company whether or not people had water or it truly was frozen so everybody just assumed, well, mine is just frozen,” he said. “A lot of those lines that we thought were frozen … they’ve kind of resolved themselves.”
In other cases, the situation was dire. “I’ve been to three people’s houses where they came home and there’s water coming out the front door – completely destroyed the drywall in every room, the floors buckled up,” Casanova said.
Though most service calls were for a repair of two or three busted pipes, the work meant Casanova could restore water to homes that have in many cases also been without power for days.
By Friday morning, they still had at least 75 more homeowners waiting for repair service – and thus waiting for water.
A plumber’s everyday residential job tends to involve unclogging sinks and toilets and installing water heaters. Casanova, an independent contractor, is one of 43,240 plumbers, pipefitters, and steamfitters in the state, according to the most recent data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
But that hasn’t made it any easier for residents to find a plumber who isn’t already booked up into next month. The backlog came as some local plumbers took down phone numbers and waited out the storm, dispatching technicians only when roads were cleared. Every request was the same – to fix leaking pipes.
“Every call I’m getting, it sounds like the same person over and over again,” said Erik Velasquez, office manager for the family-owned Parker and Sons Plumbing. The calls just kept coming, up to 60 or 70 a day, or twice the normal average and mostly for residential repairs.
About that many were on the waitlist as of Friday, and they planned to work through the weekend. And the bigger plumbing jobs, the sort that involves digging trenches under a structure, have been put on hold.
“At the end of the day on Monday, I think we were already backed up until Thursday or Friday,” Velasquez said. “As soon as we were able to put the vans back on the road … some of them worked until 8 [at night]. We were trying to get to as many of those repairs as possible.”
Neither plumbing company is charging extra for repair calls, though the price can vary depending on the type and size of the piping. “We’re trying to help the community of San Antonio,” Velasquez said. “If anything, we have been discounting the prices.”
Casanova said he has a price book with set charges. “We go by that price whether you’re on the North Side of San Antonio, South Side, West Side, night, day, Christmas holiday. That price does not ever change.”
The City has warned residents to beware of fraudulent and unqualified contractors looking to take advantage of a crisis and provides a list of registered plumbers at sanantonio.gov/DSD. The Texas State Board of Plumbing Examiners also maintains a list of licensed plumbers.
Kelly Tison, who lives in the Oaks at Sonterra, was without water for 30 hours after a pipe burst in her garage last week. Though the damage was minimal, the water had to be turned off to stop the leak.
She found a plumber online through the neighborhood social media app Nextdoor, agreed on the price, and he came the following day despite the weather.
“The other calls I made were not even answered so I was happy when I got an actual human to answer,” she said via Nextdoor messaging. Later, she questioned the $824 bill for 15 minutes of work and reached out to the company to negotiate.
“Although I still feel the amount I paid was way too high, I appreciate that they responded quickly to my call, came out while it was actively snowing and they fixed my problem,” she said.
In the wake of San Antonio’s deep freeze, the City is waiving permit fees for emergency plumbing repairs to help people more quickly get their pipes back in order. And on Thursday, Mayor Ron Nirenberg said the City would ask the federal government for funding and reimbursement from the Federal Emergency Management Agency for pipe repairs.
Nirenberg and County Judge Nelson Wolff also issued an emergency order against price gouging for goods and services.
Though businesses are allowed to generally set their own rates for services, price gouging after a natural disaster is against the law and complaints can be filed with the attorney general’s office or with the Board of Plumbing Examiners at 512-936-5200 (press 4).
Mulder, who is waiving his usual $109 fee for weekend and holiday emergencies, said plumbers for the most part aren’t reveling in the disaster.
“This is one of those things that we, as plumbers, take in stride,” Mulder said. “We were all already very busy – we already had a full schedule going into this. So this is more of a misfortune for us actually.
“Even though a lot of people [say] plumbers must be making a killing right now because they’ve got so much work, it’s actually very difficult for us because these aren’t the type of jobs that are truly profitable for us. And at the end of the day, we’re not looking to make a huge buck off of a huge misfortunate event.”
Disclosure: Erik Velasquez is a brother to San Antonio Report Audience Engagement Editor JJ Velasquez.