While it’s intuitive to link “global warming” with hotter and longer heatwaves, longer droughts, more wildfires, and heavier rain, the link is less obvious when it comes to an increase in extreme cold events across North America, particularly in areas that have not historically experienced severe winter weather. However, the scientific community generally agrees that climate change is causing the uptick in extreme cold events. This is because drastic changes in the Arctic, which is warming faster than anywhere else on Earth, are triggering the circular pattern of winds, known as the polar vortex, to spread southward more often.
Cities and utilities are faced with many additional challenges related to increased incidents of freezing temperatures, heavy snowfall, and icing, which can negatively impact drinking and wastewater systems. Challenges can include pipe breaks throughout the distribution system caused by freeze-thaw cycles; loss of power and communication lines; limited access to facilities; reduced workforce due to unsafe travel conditions; water quality issues from road salt in stormwater runoff; and blockage of valves and intakes because of ice. Additionally, cold temperatures can increase water viscosity, putting more strain on pump equipment.
One extreme example was Winter Storm Uri in Texas in February 2021. Even after power was restored, more than 800 public water systems serving 13.1 million people faced a shortage of drinkable water as pipes cracked, wells froze, and water treatment plants were knocked offline. Another was Winter Storm Elliott, which brought record-setting cold temperatures to many parts of the United States and Canada in December 2022. The winter storm intensified into a bomb cyclone with extremely frigid conditions reaching a number of areas that do not regularly experience freezing temperatures. As a result, 6.3 million households across the U.S. and 1.1 million across Canada were without power at some point during the storm, and numerous homes and buildings suffered water damage caused by pipes freezing and bursting.
Private water and sewer lines compound the problem for municipalities and water and sewer utility providers during extreme cold events, as customers with frozen lines can experience service interruptions, prompting more calls to the provider at a time when staffing is stretched thin. Additionally, customers are often unaware that the utility is not responsible for repairs to private service lines and can become dissatisfied with the provider for not providing a solution in a time of high stress.
The NLC Service Line Warranty Program by HomeServe partners with over 1,000 municipalities and utility providers to offer homeowners optional protection plans to expedite and cover the cost of repairing or replacing private-side exterior water and sewer lines and interior plumbing and drainage lines. The solution includes homeowner education to clarify service line responsibility and understanding of how to solve issues though the provider’s program, and claims are serviced by a network of licensed, local plumbers, promoting local business growth. During Winter Storm Uri, HomeServe experienced unprecedented monthly job volume in Texas, with more than 4,800 jobs deployed to the company’s network contractors throughout the state. Frozen water lines meant water service line jobs increased by five times over the previous year, in-home plumbing work increased by 65 percent, and call volume increased by 40 times in some areas. Partially due to Winter Storm Elliott, December 2022 was HomeServe’s busiest month ever, with 52,000 job deployments.