As the Maine winter retreats into spring, it is a safe and comfortable time to reflect on the trials of cold and snowy weather from many winters past. It takes a bit of time and distance to look back with good humor—there is not a lot of contented chuckling going on during the process of digging cars out of snow banks, freeing firewood from an icy pile, and chasing garbage cans through a neighboring field in 30mph winds.
Winter crises have a way of easing into folklore, softening the memory of how difficult they were to manage. Some disappear completely, part of the routine of living in a cold climate. Others though, refuse to go the way of roof rakes, rock salt, and snow boots—even in the height of summer.
One such event occurred during a winter my husband and I spent in our first home. The little cottage was situated in the back corner of an open field and it felt the built-up strength of every breeze that crossed that open ground. On a windy day we could see the curtains flutter and feel the whole house sway with the gusts.
It became our custom on days like this to hole up in a side room of the house that held a mammoth woodstove. The stove produced enough heat for the entire place, but it was tricky to move the heat where we wanted it, so an oil-fired boiler and a smaller woodstove provided heat for the rest of the ground level. Between the three, the whole house stayed comfortable most of the time, but it was hard to resist taking refuge right next the big stove at times when it felt like the whole house might just blow away.
On a blustery day, with both stoves chugging, we set up camp by the big stove and spent the afternoon visiting with my father, who had stopped by for a cup of coffee. It was customary for him to nod off after a little while spent in a comfortable chair by the fire, but on this day the heat got the better of us all and we dropped off one by one.
Some time later I awoke, a bit disoriented and embarrassed, but still nice and toasty, thanks to the fire. I shuffled toward the kitchen to put on a fresh pot of coffee and noticed a sharp difference in the temperature there. Like a 30 degree difference. I hurried to the thermostat and was shocked to see that the room temperature was barely above 50°F. My next stop was the small woodstove—it was out, cold. Finally, with a little hesitation, I felt the pipes leading to the baseboard heat. They were like ice. To confirm my fears I turned on the kitchen faucet. Nothing.
Coffee forgotten, I ran back to the side room (now the only warm room in the house) and shook my husband out of his oblivious slumber. Our pipes were frozen and we needed to thaw them out… fast.
Apparently, the heat from the woodstoves was enough to keep the boiler from firing and circulating water through the registers. This wouldn’t ordinarily be a problem, but during our unexpected siesta the second fire died out and allowed the main part of the house to cool a bit. There was enough of a lag in the boiler kicking on that the drafts from the cold wind beating the front of the house was adequate to freeze the water inside the lines–along with our domestic water lines on that side of the house.
Though the logic was sound, we had no time to appreciate the rationalization or berate ourselves for letting it happen. Frozen copper pipes are subject to bursting, and we had to hustle to prevent the flooding and damage that would result. I stoked the fire, he ran the heat gun, and we both vowed to poke each other periodically to keep from falling asleep the next time.
The best way to deal with frozen pipes is to avoid them. Learn from my mistakes and take steps to prevent freezing if you live in a cold climate or even in a place that is subject to occasional freezing temperatures. These are simple projects you can do yourself to avoid damage and repairs down the road.
Both hot and cold water lines are vulnerable to freezing. In fact, a phenomenon called the Mpemba Effect can lead to hot water freezing faster than cold water. Use appropriate pipe insulation on all accessible water lines, and consider adding electric heat cables in especially vulnerable areas.
Close Foundation and Crawlspace Vents
The vents under your home are important for air circulation, but if left open in the winter they can allow cold air underneath the home that can create freezing conditions. Close vents or bank the exterior of the house with plastic and lath, bags of leaves, rigid foam insulation, or even hay bales to provide insulation.
Follow the Forecast
If freezing conditions are expected, take steps to make sure your pipes stay warm. Open the cabinet doors under sinks located on outside walls, run a space heater in a cold basement, or let the faucets drip to keep the water inside the pipes moving and warm.
If you will be away from your home for an extended time, draining the water lines and tanks is the most reliable way to prevent freezing. Turn of the main water supply and drain the lines by opening faucets and emptying water heater and pressure tanks. Add non-toxic anti-freeze to drains and toilets to prevent freezing where water remains in the traps.
If you discover your pipes have frozen, but not yet broken, take immediate steps to thaw them out. The expansion of water as it freezes can cause most types of pipe to break. If this occurs, the pipes will have to be replaced, which can be a costly endeavor. You can locate and thaw frozen pipes on your own, but if you don’t have the right equipment on hand, it may be more practical to call in a pro who can save some time.
Warm the Area
Use central heating or space heaters to warm up the room or area in which the freezing has occurred. This may be all you need to do if the frozen area is small and isolated.
Thaw the Pipes
Use an electric heat gun to warm frozen sections of pipe (an infrared thermometer comes in handy to pinpoint frozen areas). Hold the gun 6 to 12 inches away from the pipe and keep it moving slowly. Use a heat gun with caution—it can get hot enough to cause combustion. A hair dryer may be adequate to thaw a small section, but does not reach the same temps as a heat gun, and may burn out if you run it for an extended time. Do not use a torch to thaw any type of pipe—even copper. The flame can easily ignite wood and other building materials and can cause smoldering that may go undetected and lead to a fire.
If your pipes do break or burst after freezing, the damaged sections must be replaced and any related water damage resolved or repaired. You may be able to do some aspects of this work if you are experienced, but some states and cities require a permit for emergency plumbing repairs. If that’s the case you may need a licensed plumber to pull the permit and do the work, so be sure to check with local authorities.
Turn Off the Water Supply
Shut down the water supply in the area of the damage to prevent flooding and allow for repairs.
Replace Damaged Pipes
Use appropriate tools to cut out damaged sections of pipe and replace them with new materials.
Repair Related Damage
Extract standing water, remove damaged drywall and insulation and allow wet areas to dry before making repairs. Be sure to fully assess flooring, walls, trim, and framing in the area to prevent trapping moisture that may lead to rot and mold growth.
Image courtesy of Apartment Therapy