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Texas plumbers flush with business after freeze

Andy Uhler Apr 9, 2021
Heard on:
February's extreme weather did widespread damage to pipes and drainage systems, keeping plumbers busy since then. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Texas plumbers flush with business after freeze

Andy Uhler Apr 9, 2021
Heard on:
February's extreme weather did widespread damage to pipes and drainage systems, keeping plumbers busy since then. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

A little after 11 a.m. on a recent Friday, 31-year-old Matthew Avalos gets out of his company van at a two-story brick house in north Austin, Texas. 

He’s wearing a navy blue Radiant Plumbing T-shirt and a black face mask. He’s here to check on a big puddle in the front yard that’s forced the homeowners to shut off their water.

“I do a lot of leak detection,” Avalos says. “I’m kind of the leak guy.”

To find the leak at this particular house, the first thing he does is remove the metal cover from the main shut-off valve at the street.

“We’re just going to go over here to the meter side of the base, and we’re just going to turn the water on and kind of see where this water is coming from,” he says. And after just a few seconds, he finds the culprit. “Oh yeah. We got it right there.”

He says it’s hard to tell whether this leak was caused by the February freeze or the tree roots he had to dig around to get to a crack in the PVC pipe that drains from the house out to the city’s sewer system.

Regardless, he says, the fix is relatively simple.

“I’m going to create what’s called a swing joint,” he says as he digs around in his van for a reciprocating saw, some new PVC pipe, fittings and glue. “It just makes gluing it all together pretty simple. That way, I’m not trying to force anything together.”

Avalos says that finally, almost two months after the freeze, he’s able to get to less urgent jobs like this one.

Because for most of the last two months, the phone calls were about the same emergency over and over again.

“Split pipe, split pipe, split pipe,” he says. And those were split pipes inside homes causing damage.

“At the beginning of all this, we had 1,500 calls that were scheduled,” Avalos says.

That’s just one plumbing company in Austin. Nearly every plumber in the state has been working nonstop to meet the demand.

Avalos says everyone at Radiant was working weekends and taking on whatever jobs they could to help folks after the freeze, which he felt good about.

But he never imagined plumbing was what he would end up doing. “Honestly, I was in retail,” he says. “For like seven years I was in retail.”

He worked at Walmart, Kohl’s and Academy Sports & Outdoors. And then one day about 10 years ago, things changed.

“I was talking to a buddy of mine, and he’s a plumber and he goes, ‘Do you mind getting your hands dirty?’ And I was like, ‘No.’ And he goes, ‘All right. Well, come do this,’” Avalos recalls.

He’s been doing it ever since. He says there’s another part of plumbing that has a leg up on his old jobs.

“Yeah, the money is definitely a good plus compared to retail,” he says. “I know this was back in 2012 when I started, but as an apprentice I was making just as much as I was as a customer-service manager at Walmart.”

He says that as a result of the freeze, he was able to make a bunch of cash he didn’t expect to.

After saying goodbye to the customer, he grabs his tablet to send his bosses a note letting them know he’s ready to move on.

“That’s done. Everything has been paid for,” he says as he clicks buttons on the screen.

Total bill for this job: $1,199.

And then, almost immediately, his phone dings.

“So it looks like they’re sending me to my next one,” he says, leaning on the side of his work van. “Says a leak is coming from the second story to the first story through the ceiling, and there’s a bathroom above it. So no telling what it’ll be.”

Avalos says he likes that about plumbing. It can be dirty sometimes, but he enjoys the troubleshooting and problem solving of it all. And in times like these when plumbers are in high demand, he also enjoys the job security.

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