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Published November 28, 2013, 11:30 PM

Friday flush: Plumbers gear up for one of year’s busiest days

FARGO – Retailers aren’t the only ones gearing up for booming business on Black Friday. While stores ring up throngs of customers eager to get deeply discounted sale items, plumbers, too, have a busy day keeping up with calls for help clearing out clogged kitchen sinks or plugged sewer lines.

By: Ryan Johnson, INFORUM

FARGO – Retailers aren’t the only ones gearing up for booming business on Black Friday.

While stores ring up throngs of customers eager to get deeply discounted sale items, plumbers, too, have a busy day keeping up with calls for help clearing out clogged kitchen sinks or plugged sewer lines.

It’s the busiest day of the year for Roto-Rooter’s residential plumbers in America, the company said last week. Service calls jump 50 percent higher than an average Friday, and there’s a 21 percent increase in calls over the four-day holiday weekend compared to any other Thursday through Sunday.

Carl Meckle, plumbing service team leader for Laney’s Inc. in Fargo, said the main culprit is at the core of Thanksgiving – a big meal, often shared with many guests.

“You get more garbage disposal usage, and extra toilets and showers getting used,” he said. “So, you’ll have the random family member plug a toilet, or if your sewer is getting ready to plug, it’s going to plug when you have company because you have more usage then.”

But the majority of Black Friday service calls aren’t the punch line for toilet humor, according to James Nyberg, service plumbing foreman for Robert Gibb & Sons in Fargo.

“It’s usually drain calls,” he said.

DISPOSE WISELY

Many plumbing problems start in the kitchen, Nyberg said.

While people are preparing the big meal, they might overestimate the power of their garbage disposal. Peeling carrots, chopping celery and getting the potatoes ready for mashing is fine, he said, unless they try to get rid of the peels with this small kitchen gadget.

“They think all that can go down the garbage disposal, which is not true,” he said. “That will clog up your drain instantly.”

Still, Nyberg said users’ inflated idea of what a garbage disposal can handle is the fault of the English language more than the user.

“It’s actually called a ‘food waste disposer,’ “ he said. “It’s never been called a garbage disposal. But you know how our language is, and we turn things around. People hear garbage disposal and think, ‘Well, this is garbage, and we’re going to save the environment.’ “

Nyberg offered a simple rule of thumb – use the garbage disposal to grind up small food scraps that are rinsed off dirty dishes or that fall into the drain while cooking. But don’t rely on it to get rid of material that could easily be thrown away.

“If you want to save a plumbing bill and save your pipes, yeah, use a trash can,” he said.

There isn’t universal agreement on that guideline, even among professional plumbers here. Meckle admitted he puts “everything” possible down his garbage disposal, including leftover pizza.

Still, Meckle said residents have to know the limits. Garbage disposals come in all price ranges, and while top models grind the food in three phases to make the particles small and easily flushable down pipes, cheaper models may only grind the food once.

Elite disposals aren’t cheap. After installation, the top model offered by Laney’s adds up to about $2,000 and is usually only found in commercial kitchens that need that kind of horsepower.

Garbage disposals take the brunt of the blame when someone clogs up their kitchen sink. But Meckle said it’s usually human error, not a faulty appliance, that’s to blame.

Most people run into problems because they peel all their vegetables and finish prepping their entire meal before they turn on the garbage disposal. Instead, Meckle said they should slowly put scraps down the drain, keep the disposal running and have the water on full blast to flush it all down so it won’t clog the pipes.

“You can take a plateful of food, turn the water on, turn the garbage disposal on and feed that plate in there all day long,” he said. “You can empty that whole fridge in there as long as you’re feeding it, just giving it a dose at a time and letting it chew up and swallow it.”

It seems simple enough, but Meckle said he was called to help the same local resident on both Thanksgiving and Christmas one holiday season – they just didn’t learn their lesson the first time.

“She would load up the garbage disposal, turn the water on and then turn on the garbage disposal,” he said. “It all starts to go and then it hits a turn and it all packs there, and it just explodes everywhere.”

DELAYED EFFECT

Other common Black Friday service calls often involve older homes, where sewer lines have started to drain slowly because of invading tree roots. It might go unnoticed the rest of the year, but Meckle said it can become a Thanksgiving disaster because extra guests mean more showers, more laundry and more water use in general.

To avoid this, he said homeowners might want to consider an annual visit from a plumber in the late summer or early fall to have their sewer line augered. Laney’s charges $165 for this service, which includes a camera inspection to ensure it’s cleared.

Grease can also cause Turkey Day headaches, according to Chuck White, vice president of technical and code services for the Plumbing Heating Cooling Contractors National Association.

Homeowners should try to keep as much grease as possible out of their sink, instead letting it cool before putting it in the trash.

While turkey drippings typically won’t cause immediate plumbing disasters, White said grease will slowly build up. If enough accumulates, it can clog pipes and require professional help, he said.

Still, it’s impossible to keep all grease out of the sink, which is why cold water – at full force – should be used for rinsing.

“Using hot water, you’re sending that grease down dissolved and at some point down that drain pipe, it’s going to get cold again and stick to the cold surfaces,” he said. “If you send it down in cold water, it’s already solid and more likely to wash through.”

It might be tempting to try to fix a clogged sink without calling a plumber. That’s fine, White said, but if a bottle of drain cleaner or a pipe snake doesn’t do the trick and a professional is called, people need to specify what they’ve already tried because many products contain potentially dangerous chemicals.

Most Black Friday service calls report problems from Thanksgiving, but Nyberg said there’s a simple reason for the holiday’s delayed effect – frugality. Many plumbers, including Robert Gibb & Sons, charge extra fees or higher rates on holidays.

People also want to enjoy Thanksgiving without unexpected guests.

“Most people wait it out because they have family over, and they don’t want a plumber coming over,” he said.

Laney’s charges the same rate for service calls, no matter the time of day or if it’s a holiday, Meckle said. Clearing out a plugged sink usually costs $110, for example, unless extra supplies are required.

Still, he said Laney’s gets most of its Thanksgiving-related calls the next day.

Working on a holiday, even an unofficial shopping day like Black Friday, may seem like a bother. But Meckle enjoys being on duty this time of year.

“Even the comments alone of coming in and being the hero, that makes you feel good, rather than getting treated like you’re here because I’m paying you to be here,” he said. “When you get around the holiday time, people are more respectful.”

Readers can reach Forum reporter Ryan Johnson at (701) 241-5587

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