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Cold snap in Estonia brings more work for plumbers and rescue workers

Tap water (photo is illustrative).
Tap water (photo is illustrative). Source: Siim Lõvi /ERR

The cold weather at the beginning of the year has brought with it a lot of work for Estonia's plumbers and rescue workers alike. So far, eight houses have been destroyed by fires caused when attempting to melt frozen water pipes using household tools.

On Tuesday, a house in Lao, Pärnu County burnt down after the owner left a fan heater switched on to thaw out his frozen water pipes while he was out. He only discovered the fire upon returning home. However, by the time the emergency services were on the scene, the building was already in flames, and the roof and partitions had collapsed.

Later that same evening, rescue workers had to partially dismantle a bathroom in Tamsalu, Lääne-Viru County, to get to a five square meter frame that was burning behind one of the walls.

A total of eight buildings throughout Estonian have caught fire already this year as a result of people trying to thaw frozen water pipes.

"It's mainly either fan heaters or heating tools that have been used. This has either resulted in them being left unattended or being plugged into the electrical system and the electrical systems can't withstand that. Fires occur inside the structures of the buildings. When fan heaters are used to heat things up, there is a kind of spark that goes unseen and then it goes up like that," explained Janika Usin, head of the Estonian Rescue Board's prevention department.

On January 4, a fire broke out in a Viljandi residential building between two pipes that were being thawed using a hot air gun. A spark seemingly flew through the partition and ignited the sawdust between the floors. The resident, who was attempting to thaw out the pipes in the basement only became aware of the fire thanks to a smoke detector.

"The incidents that we have seen so far are in older buildings rather than newer ones, and these are in private buildings," Usin said.

On the Internet, there is a wealth of unusual and often unhelpful advice on about how to thaw frozen pipes. One site recommends placing hot buckwheat against the pipe using a pillow, or even holding a hot iron on top of it. Even the author admits that that approach would not be suitable for plastic pipes.

To professionals however, these recommendations are rather laughable.

"The only home remedy for metal pipes is a hairdryer," said Veiko Väljaste, a plumber, who works for Torudeabi24. However, a hairdryer is of no use if the pipe is inside the wall. "If it's on the wall, then it's still worth trying to use a hair dryer," he said, noting that a regular hair dryer is not usually strong enough to thawing out frozen pipes.

Since January 1, plumbers have had more work than the can handle. At peak times, there might be as many as 44 people in line for an appointment, and working days have been known to last until 2 a.m.

Rescue workers and plumbers alike are advising people to leave their taps dripping in the lead up to the next cold snap.

According to the experts, a couple of degrees Celsius is not enough to keep the water moving in the pipes. "And if you wait too long, the pipe will break. So it's better to keep it on in any case," he added.

At the end of the interview, Väljaste drove to Kose, where the rescue team's taps were running dry. Even they too need rescuing sometimes.

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Editor: Michael Cole

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