Another blast of polar air squeezes already low supplies of propane, disrupts schools and puts the pressure on plumbers, heating contractors and tow truck drivers
The polar vortex that settled over the Midwest this week provided a sense of déja vu to Ozaukee County, but this time with a cruel twist.
Propane is in high demand, and at Peiffer Oil and Propane in Belgium, the phones were ringing off the hook early this week.
It was so busy that 12-hour-plus days were the norm and crews at the family-owned business were too busy to talk to a reporter about the state of the business.
“It’s just kind of crazy,” said Sherry Peiffer, who said that for every call they took in the office, another four people were leaving messages.
Customers are being limited to between 100 and 150 gallons of propane, she said, to make sure as many people as possible get fuel.
“We’re telling people to conserve it as much as they can,” she said.
The situation is so bad in Wisconsin that Gov. Scott Walker last week declared a state of emergency, noting the shortage has caused delivery delays and reduced delivery amounts for propane customers.
The propane shortage has been caused by the unusually cold winter temperatures, the temporary closing of a major pipeline that supplies propane to Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa late last year and a wet fall that increased propane demand for grain drying, according to Walker’s office.
The fuel business isn’t the only one affected by the arctic air that’s hit the area.
Just as they were three weeks ago, schools and recreational activities were cancelled on Tuesday due to the frigid cold and wind chills that fell to 30 below zero.
Paul Krauska, owner of Eddie’s Service in Saukville, said his tow trucks have been out constantly and his mechanics have been putting in long days.
Sunday was a tough day with the blowing, drifting snow, he said, and the frigid temperatures on Monday left many vehicles dead in their tracks.
He got home from his last call Sunday night at 2 a.m. and got his first call Monday two hours later, Krauska said.
On Tuesday morning, he estimated his crews had jumped 20 to 30 vehicles in the previous 24 hours.
That’s on top of the countless batteries that were replaced and the vehicles towed, Krauska said, adding that people stranded on the roads were being given priority over people whose vehicles were in the driveway.
“One woman this morning had called another place and was told to wait for four hours. How are you supposed to wait four hours in this?” Krauska asked. “The idea is to get everybody up and running and back on the road.
“There are a lot of no-starts, a lot of batteries that need jumping and tires that popped. They hit the ice chunks in the road and it just slices the tire.”
Jordy Schwanz, owner of Harbor City Plumbing, said he thought this blast of frigid air wouldn’t create the same number of problems as the first one three weeks ago.
He was wrong.
“I was thinking whatever was going to blow, blew three weeks ago,” Schwanz said. “But it’s been unbelievable. I don’t see it getting any slower in the next couple of days.”
That’s because many people don’t realize the damage that’s been done until frozen pipes begin to thaw, releasing water into the walls, he said.
“It’s amazing what a three-quarter inch slit can do,” Schwanz said.
By noon Tuesday, he and his crew had already responded to four calls and was headed to a Port Washington duplex where the pipes froze between the house and the road, leaving both families inside without water.
During the last cold snap, Schwanz said, a Belgium home was seriously damaged when the owners were in Florida. A friend came to check on the house and discovered water pouring in, damaging the basement, first and second floors.
“It’s been a busy year for freeze-ups,” Schwanz said. “There’s been a lot of insurance claims.”
Crews at APH Service have also been busy as furnaces go out, owner Hans Kull said.
“It’s a lot of emergency calls,” he said. Some of those calling have called other contractors first, but those other businesses have been so busy that people are being put on a waiting list just for a return call.
One person waited three hours for that return call, and when it didn’t come, called APH, he said.
“The bigger outfits are getting swamped,” he said.
Depending on the issue, his crews can sometimes help the caller fix the problem over the phone, Kull said.
Some problems can be attributed to people who haven’t maintained their furnace properly, often lulled into a sense of security by the fairly mild winters we’ve experienced in recent years, he said.
“You know, the winters for the last five years have been relatively mild until now,” Kull said. “As soon as you go to zero and five degrees below zero and the winds howl, everything changes.”
Image Information: CREATED BY SUB-ZERO air colliding with water warmed by the We Energies power plant, steam shrouded a fisherman in Port Washington’s Rotary Park and the city’s lighthouse in the distance Tuesday. Photo above by Bill Schanen IV