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Cold triggers alarming reactions, tips

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Jim Leute
December 30, 2013

JANESVILLE—The strange noises early Monday morning prompted one Janesville woman to round up her kids, herd them together and call 911.

Elsewhere, a Janesville man heard similar sounds, armed himself with a handgun and prepared for what he thought was an impending break-in.

At other homes, dogs barked at walls.

All resulted in calls to the county's 911 dispatch center.

All proved to be nothing more than strange house noises caused by plummeting temperatures and the contraction of pipes and other materials.

It's that kind of scary cold that whipped into Wisconsin late Sunday night and is expected to linger into the New Year.

Sgt. Brian Vaughn of the Janesville Police Department said his officers responded to 11 calls of suspicious activity between 3 p.m. Sunday and 6 a.m. Monday.

“People said they thought someone was breaking in or pounding on their walls or doors,” Vaughn said.

“Nothing turned out to be wrong,” Vaughn said. “There were no attempted break-ins. It was just strange house noises.”

SCIENCE BEHIND THE SOUNDS

“When you get temperatures dropping as fast as they did, you get a contraction that results in movement--a lot of pushing and pulling and snapping in the house,” said Eric Richards of Eric Richards Construction in Janesville.

“It can be very loud and very strange sounding.”

A home's structural components are exposed to low external temperatures and higher internal temperatures at the same time. Some parts of the house expand, while other parts contract, which puts stress on connections, windows, doors and siding and mechanical components.

When things shift, the result is often the creaking and popping that triggered calls of suspicious activity to police.

“Other than being aware of what's causing it, there's not much you can do about it,” Richards said.

SERIOUS SNAPPING

Richards, who also owns Janesville Plumbing, said homeowners should pay attention to the noises, as sometimes the snapping and popping can indicate frozen water pipes.

“That's something people need to be concerned about,” Richards said.

His plumbing division responded to several calls about frozen pipes a couple of weeks ago and likely will do so again during this cold snap.

“Pipes often freeze because people have left their hoses connected to the outside hose bibs or there is air leakage that exposes those pipes to really cold air.”

Richards said homeowners should pay particular attention in basements and crawl spaces, where a frozen pipe may burst and cause significant water damage.

In addition to disconnecting outdoor hoses, Janesville's water utility urges property owners insulate pipes or faucets in unheated areas, keep basements heated and, if possible, keep some tap water running.

While moving water is more difficult to freeze, it also will waste water and increase the bill.

OTHER TIPS

With 2013 ringing itself out with an arctic blast, Wisconsin Emergency Management offered several suggestions:

-- For those traveling, make sure you have a winter emergency kit in your vehicle. Items to include in the kit are candles and matches, a flashlight, pocket knife, snacks, a cell phone adapter, a blanket and extra clothing.

-- For those outside, there is an increased chance of frostbite and hypothermia when wind chills reach minus 20 to minus 35.

Frostbite can happen in less than 30 minutes of exposure. Symptoms include a loss of feeling and a white or pale appearance in fingers, toes, ear tips and tip of the nose.

Hypothermia—a drop in body temperature below 95 degrees—also is a danger. Warning signs include uncontrollable shivering, disorientation, slurred speech and drowsiness. Again, limit your outdoor activity and seek medical care if you detect these symptoms.

-- For those inside, beware of carbon monoxide, a leading cause of accidental poisoning deaths in the United States.

Never run a gasoline or propane heater or a grill—gas or charcoal—inside a home or an unventilated garage. Any heating system that burns fuel will produce carbon monoxide. Never run a car in an enclosed space.

Make sure you have working carbon monoxide detectors. All homes and duplexes in Wisconsin are required to have carbon monoxide detectors on every level including the basement.

Breathing carbon monoxide displaces oxygen in blood and can cause death within minutes at high levels. Symptoms of overexposure to carbon monoxide are often mistaken for the flu and include headaches, fatigue, dizziness, shortness of breath/chest pain, nausea/vomiting and confusion.

DON'T FORGET THE PETS

While humans struggle to stay warm, the Wisconsin Humane Society offers some tips for pets. While the most obvious is to keep a pet inside, the society recommends:

-- Keeping dogs leashed on snow and ice. Despite their powerful noses, dogs often lose their scent in the snow and ice, and can easily become lost.

-- Not leaving a pet alone in the car, which quickly can become a refrigerator.

-- Wiping the pet's feet and legs when it comes in from the cold. Salt and antifreeze can kill dogs, and snow and ice caught between the pads on their feet can make them bleed.

-- Cleaning up spilled antifreeze, which has a sweet taste but can be a lethal poison to animals.

-- Honking your car horn before starting a car. Cats often look for warm places to rest, and the a spot under the hood could prove disastrous.

THE FORECAST

The National Weather Service expects Tuesday to be partly sunny in the morning with afternoon highs of about 10. Tuesday night brings an 80 percent chance of about 2 inches of snow and a low temperature of about 4.

On New Year's Day, the high should be about 19, with a 70 percent chance of snow adding another 2 or 3 inches, according to the weather service.

High temperatures will linger in the lower teens Thursday and Friday before returning to the 20s for Saturday and Sunday.



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