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Preventing Cold Weather Disasters

Preventing Winter Weather Disasters does not need to be costly. Avert cold weather problems in your home by following a few preventative measures.

Last year we completed a whole house renovation project for a delightful couple. It was nearly a million-dollar renovation of a large home built in the 1990’s. Sadly, a large section literally got destroyed yesterday from a broken frozen pipe that could have been so easily avoided.

That’s right!  This cold weather disaster could have easily been prevented, at  no cost!

What happened?

The homeowner has two college age children that returned to school last week. The son’s bathroom is above a three-car garage. The garage is not heated and the bathroom had not been used in over a week. At this point we do not know if the garage ceiling had insulation. But regardless, you can smell what happened next:  No one was at home. A bathroom supply pipe froze and broke. Water ran from the second floor across new carpeting, down across the first floor (hardwood!) and into the newly refinished basement and created a pool. Water ran for hours! Across floors, inside ceilings, inside walls, through light fixtures. On and on.

What could have been done to avoid this?

Last week we published a blog about managing your house during the snowstorm and the extreme cold that followed it. Said succinctly, we published a blog about Preventing Winter Weather Disasters. I’ll reiterate and expand.

During extreme cold, open cabinet doors under all sinks that are on outside walls. Make sure the heat vents are open in the bathroom, laundry rooms and kitchen. If a bathroom is not used, at least walk it once a day and check it. Run the water for a minute. Hot and cold.  In a bathroom this means run water for the sink, toilet and tub/shower. In a kitchen also open the dishwasher door if it is on an outside wall.  If you have a pot filler above your range or cooktop and it is on an outside wall, let it drip, drip, drip into a large pot. Moving water won’t freeze as fast, if at all. But of course empty the pot periodically. Don’t turn the heat down at night below 70.

Now, if you turn a faucet on and nothing comes out, you have a problem. Identify if this affects all fixtures in that room or just one. More on what to do later.

Make sure everyone who lives in the house knows where the water main is.

The water main has two shutoff valves. Yesterday, the homeowner knew exactly where it was and within minutes of arriving home had the watermain turned off. And here is a quick sidebar. She knew exactly where the main was because when we work in a home, we hang a sign for our workers indicating where the watermain and electric panels are located. Let me tell you this has paid dividends more than once in the past 34 years! Turn the valve now and then. They can get stuck from lack of use.

Most of our customers have finished basements with the water main in a closet. Water mains are always against outside walls. If it gets real cold, open the closet door and leave it open until the cold spell subsides.

But wait you say! Yesterday was a relatively warm day. At least compared to all the days before it. Why would a pipe freeze on a warm day?

The answer is tricky:  the pipe did not freeze on the warm day, it froze on the cold day. Because it was frozen, it did not leak. When it froze it split the pipe. Later as the air temperature warmed above freezing, it thawed enough to start leaking. Supply pipes are under pressure.  This pressure pushes the water through the pipes. As the pipe thawed, the pressure pushes water through the split and rest is history. Think of water shooting out of hose in your yard in summer. That’s a lot of force. And now congratulations, you’re now the winner of a six-figure calamity – plus the emotional toll.

What if you discover a pipe froze, but is not yet leaking?

  1. Check the other faucets in the same room and try to isolate how many fixtures are froze.
  2. Next turn your water main off. Turn the frozen pipe fixture all the way to full open. Nothing will come out of course, but when the water starts flowing you want to know and direct some of the pressure into the sink. You will not yet know if the frozen pipe split. Sometimes they don’t split.
  3. Turn the heat up in the room by opening the HVAC vent all the way.
  4. Turn the blower on your furnace on. This will allow air to circulate whether the furnace is calling for heat or not. If the culprit is a shower, get a fan and aim it toward the faucet and let it blow air at the wall.

Note that it may take a couple hours for the pipe to thaw enough for the water to start flowing again.

  1. Lastly, the above is well and good but you still do not know if the frozen pipe split and you have a leak.  And you won’t know until the water starts flowing. So listen acutely and walk around and observe. If you hear or see water flowing you know what you have so run and turn the water main off. Call a plumber.

You just saved six figures so go buy a Lottery ticket and send us a thank you note!

As always, we are here to help.  Please keep us in mind if a room in your home needs a redo, refresh or a complete trendsetting redesign. For this and more tips on preventing winter weather disasters and ice damming visit our website. And don’t forget to periodically check the weather in your area.