Len The Plumber

Plumber Stephen Tant Jr., Len the Plumber, welds 54 1/2 inch copper piping to repair a break in the hose bib supply line in Kacey Gaige's garage. (Kim Hairston, Baltimore Sun / January 24, 2014)

It is a chilling tale of winter, one that in ghost-story fashion begins with a sign that all is not right. Maybe there's a damp spot spreading ominously across a wall, or faint sounds that grow louder and more insistent.

"I heard water dripping," Liz Simon-Higgs of Baltimore said, "but mostly what I heard was my water meter spinning."

Similarly, Kacey Gaige heard the tell-tale sound of water on the move in her Severna Park home, "but I wasn't running the laundry." As she headed into her garage to pick her kids up at school Thursday, the source of the mystery sound was revealed.

"Oh, an ice skating rink," she said of the water that had spewed from a broken pipe onto the garage floor, freezing in the unheated space.

Throughout the area, the record-breaking cold has caused water pipes to freeze and burst, unleashing rivers of water that panicked homeowners rush to stop.

"I was just turning valves," Gaige told Stephen Tant Jr., a plumber who had arrived Friday afternoon to fix her pipes.

Tant, who works for Len the Plumber company, began sorting through a complicated set of pipes, spigots and knobs running along the wall of the unheated garage. Water had apparently frozen in one pipe, causing it to separate at the point where it had been soldered to another length of pipe.

Like other plumbers in the area, Tant, 28, has spent much of this frigid spell heading from one winter-worn pipe to another.

"We've never had unbearable cold like this," he said. "We were just catching up from the last cold spurt, and now we're back into it again."

Tant had just left a rowhouse in Southwest Baltimore where an outdoor spigot connected to a garden hose froze and cracked, sending water cascading down outdoor steps and a walkway to the street, where it froze into a thick sheet of ice along the curb.

"Those are the ones that freeze the most because it's exposed to the outdoors," Tant said of the hose bib — plumber-speak for the outdoor spigot. He replaced it with a frost-proof one and sealed the opening in the wall to prevent air from flowing through and perhaps freezing the indoor pipes.

Picking his way through the basement and into a tiny space, he put a new valve on the pipe leading to the hose bib and soldered the parts together. Then, the moment of truth: turning the water back on to make sure the fixes held.

And still, the job was not done. Tant, who had been carefully putting paper booties on and off as he went in and out of the house, got down on his hands and knees to give the kitchen floor a good wipe down.

He feels for his customers, some of whom are in tears when he shows up, or are so grateful for his work that they'll make him dinner or offer him pie.

"You can have a bad day, and you remember that," Tant said, "and it picks you right up."

Plumbing companies throughout the area say they've been inundated with calls all month — and there have been repeat customers.

Jen Hinderliter, who lives in Glen Burnie, called Honest Abe's Plumbing Heating and Cooling on Friday for her second cracked pipe of the month.

A military wife, she and her husband moved into their circa 1923 bungalow about six months ago, having scoured the area for the kind of historic home that she loves — despite what can be aging or not-well-insulated water pipes.

"The first pipe, in what I think is a converted porch, burst during that time when it was cold, then it was warm, and then it was cold again," Hinderliter, 37, said. "That one still is not fixed because they wanted to wait until it got drier and warmer, and it's never gotten drier."

With that pipe out of commission, Hinderliter, the mother of 2- and 4-year-old children, had to do the dishes down in the basement. There, she noticed some leaking, and her second cracked pipe.