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From Snow Shoveling To Frozen Pipes, Here Are Some Things To Know About Pittsburgh's Cold Weather

Liz Reid
90.5 WESA
More snow is coming for the Pittsburgh region this weekend, with temperatures expected to quickly drop Friday evening.

There's a winter storm warning for Allegheny County tonight and officials are advising against any traveling. 

Meteorologist Fred McMullen with the National Weather Service Pittsburgh said a flash freeze caused by rapidly dropping temperatures will begin sometime between 7 and 9 p.m., with snow falling around midnight.

"We are looking for any water to be on roads to turn immediately to ice as the temperatures drop, making travel very hazardous tonight," McMullen said. 

He said secondary roads and bridges will get slippery first, because they cool faster.

"Expect disruptions to your normal day-to-day routine," he said. "The safest place to be is your house tonight."

Preparing for winter in Pittsburgh can be difficult. While the winter months can be unpredictable, here are answers to some of the questions Pittsburghers may have about the wavering winter weather.

Who is responsible for cleaning the sidewalks?

By law, it is actually the responsibility of homeowners or landlords, based on the rental agreement, to shovel the sidewalk following any snowfall.

According to City Code 419.03:

“Every tenant, occupant, or property owner having the care or charge of any land or building fronting on any street in the city, where there is a sidewalk...within 24 hours after the fall of any snow or sleet, or the accumulation of ice caused by freezing rainfall, cause the same to be removed from the sidewalk.”

Credit Jake Savitz / 90.5 WESA
90.5 WESA
A man shovels snow from a sidewalk in front of businesses along East Carson Street on Pittsburgh's South Side on Thursday, Dec. 14, 2017.

Time allotted for removal can vary depending on the neighborhood, and failure to clear the snow and ice away could result in a warning, which could escalate to a certified letter or eventually a citation to appear before the magistrate if the offender isn't compliant. The magistrate then has authority to impose a fine, which could be between $5 and $600, according to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

As outlined on the Department of Public Works’ snow and ice street maintenance page, snow should not be shoveled onto the street, but relocated into the yard or the curb to avoid blocking the roadway.

Pittsburgh Parks and Recreation also runs a volunteer program called Snow Angels that offers snow removal assistance to residents who are elderly or disabled.

What is the snowplow tracker, and how does it work?

Launched in Jan. 2015, this online app is activated during snow events to help residents track the clearing of routes. This service uses 120 public works vehicles, including snow plows and salt trucks, enabled with GPS to display the cleaning history to residents. The city hopes to further implement technology that will allow users to view active cleaning in real time, according to their Weather Resource Center plow tracker page.

What is a Level 1, 2, 3 & 4 snow event?

According to Pittsburgh’s Weather Resource Center:

  • Level 1: A forecasted .5-3 inches of snow or mixed precipitation
  • Level 2: 3-6 inches
  • Level 3: 6-10 inches
  • Level 4: 10 inches or more

Based on the level of forecasted precipitation, the city employs a varying degree of cleaning tactics. For instance, in the case of a Level 1 snow event, only large equipment is deployed to primary routes, and small equipment is used for any secondary routes. In both Level 2 and 3 snow events, Public Works vehicles are equipped with plowing capabilities. In order to handle a Level 4 snow event, qualified contractors can be brought in to assist Public Works in clearing routes.
In the event that an icy roadway is in need of clearing off, call 412-225-2621, or utilize Pittsburgh’s 311 Response Center.

What are the laws for tenants/renters regarding minimum temperatures for apartments?

The Allegheny County Health Department’s rules and regulations guide for housing and community environment state that the temperature should be at least 68 degrees and no lower than 61 degrees Fahrenheit in all habitable rooms when the outside temperature is less than 10 degrees.

The Health Department lists “rooms containing a toilet, bathtub or shower, community corridors within dwelling units, and community corridors within rooming houses from rooming units to rooms containing a toilet, bathtub or shower” as habitable spaces.

The responsibility for maintaining these temperatures falls upon the landlord, unless dictated otherwise in the lease agreement.

In the instance of a failure to comply with these guidelines, a complaint can be placed by calling 412-350-4046 or through an online form as part of the ACHD’s Housing & Community Environment Program.

Cold weather masks are also available for free through Breathe Pennsylvania, a non-profit organization focused on lung health, to residents in the Allegheny, Armstrong, Beaver, Butler, Fayette, Greene, Indiana, Lawrence, Washington and Westmoreland counties. Masks are available for residents outside those counties for $5.

Credit Tony Dejak / AP
A man rides on his bicycle as fresh snow falls, Friday, Dec. 29, 2017, in Erie, Pa.

Tips for avoiding frozen pipes (or, what to do if your pipes do freeze):

Frozen or bursting pipes can be a harsh reality for many Pittsburghers, thanks to abrupt winter weather fluctuations. The main causes are often quick drops in temperature, poor insulation and thermostats kept at too low a temperature.

“A one-eighth inch crack in a pipe can spew out more than 250 gallons of water a day, destroying floors, soaking furniture and ruining personal items,” said State Farm spokesperson Dave Phillips. 

Phillips said one frozen pipe can cost thousands of dollars.

In 2016, State Farm amassed 30,562 water/freeze loss claims with $159 million in claim payment costs, he said, and the average annual cost over the last five years was closer to $279 million.

But there are ways to prepare your pipes for sub-zero temperatures (plus general guidance about what to do if/when the worse happens), as outlined in a State Farm maintenance guide.

Insulate your pipes and seal any leaks during warmer months. During the winter, keep your thermostat at a constant temperature throughout the day and the night, open cabinet doors to allow heat to reach any pipes under the sinks, disconnect outside garden hoses and let water drip from faucets during especially cold nights.

If you are leaving home for an extended period, never set the thermostat lower than 55 degrees. Turn the water system off.

“Unlike natural disasters, this disaster is preventable,” Phillips said.

If f the pipes do freeze or burst, State Farm recommends leaving the faucets turned on and calling a plumber. If the pipes have not burst yet, depending on the severity of the freezing, you may be able to thaw it yourself with a hair dryer.

What are the different terms to describe winter storms, and what do they mean?

Meteorologists use varying terminology when describing the level of a snow storm. Some are what they sound like, like wintry mix, which is a blend of precipitation like freezing rain. Others are more confusing. 

According to the NOAA’s National Weather Service glossary, a blizzard is defined as a “sustained wind or frequent gusts to 35 miles an hour or greater; and considerable falling and/or blowing snow (i.e., reducing visibility frequently to less than ¼ mile) for three hours or more.” Winter Storm Hunter, which will make its way to Pittsburgh over the weekend, has produced early signs of blizzard conditions.

In the same glossary, a snow squall is defined as “an intense, but limited duration, period of moderate to heavy snowfall, accompanied by strong, gusty surface winds and possibly lightning (generally moderate to heavy snow showers). Snow accumulation may be significant.”

A bomb cyclone or bombogenesis, a term often used amongst meteorologists but fairly new to the general public, was the category of Winter Storm Grayson that hit New York and New Jersey on Jan. 4.  The National Ocean Service said storms like Grayson “occur when a midlatitude cyclone rapidly intensifies, dropping at least 24 millibars over 24 hours. A millibar measures atmospheric pressure. This can happen when a cold air mass collides with a warm air mass, such as air over warm ocean waters.”

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.