The hot water in the shower at the Hammerstrom home could have quit at any time. For whatever reason — overuse, perhaps, or cruel fate — it went out the day after Thanksgiving.
So, on the busiest day of the year in the plumbing industry, Johan Hammerstrom called a plumber.
Thanksgiving day is a plumber's bonanza. Families converge on ill-prepared homes and proceed to flush vast quantities of water, waste and table scraps down ill-equipped drains. Some, inevitably, back up, resulting in a crush of calls to plumbing companies on a day when many plumbers stay home.
Service calls the day after Thanksgiving run about 50 percent over the volume of any other Friday, according to research by Roto-Rooter, a plumbing industry leader.
Hammerstrom, 33, of Arlington County didn't know this until he started telephoning plumbers yesterday morning. "Once we started calling, it became pretty apparent," he said. "They were just completely swamped."
The holidays are high season in the plumbing industry. The weeks surrounding Thanksgiving and Christmas bring spiraling demand for tradespeople who can free clogs from pipes, mend overtaxed faucets and replace spent water heaters.
Backed-up kitchen sinks are the leading complaint by far, said Terry Winegar, a plumber based in Burtonsville.
‘They’re all cramming things down the sink’
"We had two or three of them this morning," he said, speaking at lunchtime yesterday. "You might have three or four women working in the kitchen to do the dinner, and they're all cramming things down the sink."
Winegar took Thanksgiving off. By yesterday morning, he had a full slate of appointments and another half-dozen urgent calls, one from a longtime customer with a house full of guests and no hot water.
Steve Miller, a plumber on Capitol Hill, spent the day tending to a leaky pipe, a broken water heater and "a couple of toilets" that needed replacing.
Miller was one of just a few area plumbers who had time to talk. Calls to nearly a dozen local plumbers yesterday went unreturned, and a few said they were simply too busy to talk about their busiest day.
In Northern Virginia, Patrick Leake — whose surname is pronounced "like a plumbing leak," he said — worked Thanksgiving day and spent the entire shift at one Falls Church home. The readout on his pager said it was a toilet clog. But when he arrived, he found that the tub had backed up as well. He removed the toilet, rolled in his "big snake machine" and found the clog 25 feet away, in a main sewer line, sealed by a combination of invading tree roots and Thanksgiving refuse. The customer paid $694, including a $30 surcharge for summoning Leake on a holiday.
A trickle of hot water
Yesterday, Leake's first call took him to Arlington and the Hammerstrom home.
Hammerstrom and his wife have 11 people coming in and out of their two-bedroom townhouse during the four-day weekend. That morning, Hammerstrom's brother came down from his shower to report that the hot water had slowed to a trickle.
The mechanical failure was not entirely unexpected, Hammerstrom explained; the townhouse "is a little bit older, and it's got some quirks."
Leake arrived about 11:30 a.m. and diagnosed the problem: A loose washer was blocking the flow of hot water to the shower head. Ninety minutes later, it was fixed.
Roto-Rooter, which employs Leake, expected to earn half a million dollars in added revenue yesterday; receipts should run about 25 percent above normal for the Thanksgiving weekend as a whole. Much of that comes from fixing sink clogs, a job that might run anywhere from $85 to $250, with a premium customary for work on Sundays and holidays.
All in all, it's "a pretty good bump," said Paul Abrams, spokesman for the Cincinnati-based company. And Christmas, he noted, falls on a Monday this year. "We're looking at another long weekend."