Few parts to spare
Supplies scarce as homeowners, plumbers work to fix leaks after freeze
The tools in the back of Kenya Banks’ pickup are easily worth a few hundred dollars at any pawn shop. The really valuable thing, at least Monday in Houston, was the 5 feet or so of Type L three-quarterinch pipe tucked in the bottom of the bed.
“Copper is gold right now,” Banks said, taking a break from sliding insulation and PVC pipe into place in his truck. “You can’t find it.”
Area plumbers are working overtime to fix leaks and problems related to last week’s freeze but say they are running into the same challenges as homeowners: scarcity of supply of the most-needed materials, such as sharkbite couplings, repair clamps, plumbers’ grade epoxy and most types of pipe.
“We can handle all of this, we have the plumbers,” said Chato Woodard, business agent for Plumbers Local 68, the union for plumbers from the Rio Grande Valley to the Louisiana border. “The problem is, I go to the supply house
and wait and get maybe a quarter of the parts I need, then at the end of the day I go back to the supply house and I’m still not stocked like I need to be. … It is materials, that is all it is.”
Even those stocked with fittings, however, have too much immediate work on their hands to get to in the next few days.
“It is ridiculous how many people are in need,” said Joe Bany, director of field opera
tions for John Moore Services, one of the region’s largest home service companies. “It is going to be a while before we are caught up.”
With such widespread damage, plumbers, contractors and city officials expect weeks, if not months, of work ahead repairing pipes, patching holes in walls and ceilings, and replacing ruined floors and furnishings.
As a result of low supplies, plumbers are spending large parts of their day trying to find parts, competing with homeowners at Home Depot and other retailers rather than relying on the typical suppliers and warehouse locations.
“Given the fact there is COVID going on, that is not a good situation,” said Lee Crowley, owner of Bayou City Contracting, who is working 16-hour days to coordinate repairs for clients.
The lines come from huge need after last week’s consecutive deep freezes that put millions of Texans in the dark and burst pipes all over the region. According to Google, search interest for “hardware store” reached an all-time high in Texas.
Long waits for professionals
At Jeds Hardware in northeast Harris County, a steady crowd of 15 to 25 people filed through the plumbing aisles in the early afternoon Monday. The crowd picked through a dwindling supply of fittings, pipes and valves, some of which were plucked straight from freshly opened boxes on the floor.
Frederick Harrison, 60, scoured the shelves for a saw that would allow him to remove three breaks spread across a copper pipe running through his Aldinearea home. The leaks soaked his den ceiling, which will have to be replaced, and left more minor damage in his dining room.
“I called a plumber, but they told me it might take a week or two,” Harrison said. “I need water. I need to take a bath or shower before I go anywhere.”
While Harrison hoped to escape with cheap parts Monday, the cost of replacing Sheetrock throughout his den weighed on his mind.
“I’ll take my pictures and call FEMA and see if I can get my money back,” Harrison said. “I’m on Social Security, too, so this right here, this is hard.”
Because of the widespread needs, Houston and Harris County officials announced Monday the establishment of a storm relief fund aimed at helping struggling homeowners make necessary repairs and providing funding for alternative housing or basic needs during recovery.
“Our region has endured multiple, concurrent disasters — from Harvey to Imelda to COVID, and now a winter weather disaster,” Harris County Judge Lina Hidalgo said in a statement. “So many families were already experiencing hardship before this disaster blindsided us. This fund will lean on groups with deep experience providing recovery support to help as many people as we can.”
‘This was not normal’
In southeast Houston, Golfcrest True Value Hardware continued Monday to limit the number of customers allowed into the store because too many people were crowding the plumbing aisles. Store manager DJ Jesrani said he normally positions four of the retailer’s 18 staff members in the plumbing aisles. This week, 15 employees are there.
“As you can imagine, not many people are buying paint right now,” Jesrani said.
The store’s staff also are spending more time with novice customers, informing them about what amateurs can do and what should be left to professionals.
“I’d say a majority, maybe 75 percent of customers, do need to be talked through how to do their repairs,” Jesrani said.
Professionals, meanwhile, were working in three tiers as they performed short-term fixes just to reestablish water, intermediate jobs addressing multiple leaks and long-range work that in some cases will require replacing entire plumbing systems in homes.
Any time spent looking for parts is time lost for plugging leaks, repair experts said. Meanwhile, more problem pipes are being discovered.
“This was not normal,” Banks said of last week’s freeze. “It was always before you have one burst and you fix it. Now, you have three or four.”
The widespread nature of the problems, combined with the lack of available parts, is leading to some improvisation for solutions and supplies.
“I traded some parts with another plumber the other day,” Crowley said. “It’s a community, so everyone pulls together.”
As she left a Home Depot on Houston’s east side Monday afternoon, Emily Rosales lamented the work ahead at her Galena Park home, where five leaks sprang throughout her attic. Rosales, 34, said three or four plumbers were not available for an immediate appointment, so she is resorting to assistance from family.
“I have brothers who say they’ll help me take care of everything,” Rosales said. “But we’ll see if they know what they’re doing.”
Plumbers and many do-it-yourself hopefuls said they know some of the repairs are just temporary fixes, and summer could include a lot of more permanent projects.
“A lot of things will work even if they are done wrong,” Bany said. “They just will not work long term.”