Nearly 25 winters ago we rented a cabin in Lake Tahoe. During that vacation we skied, sledded and had snowball fights, followed by evenings around a fire. We are from California where snow is not often seen. One night the water pressure dropped and there was no hot water. We thought the pilot light had gone out on the water heater, but a trip to the water-heater shed resulted in a surprising discovery - icy water gushing from a cracked copper line connected to the water heater. The pipe had frozen and burst. We then attempted to temporarily stop the leak. We considered ourselves lucky that the break had occurred away from the house or else we might have been sleeping on a wet mattress or a soaking couch. We learned a lot about how water pipes react to cold weather on that trip.
Each winter, an average of a quarter-million homes suffer extensive damage due to burst water lines.
If your water lines have been frozen of if you've already experienced a burst water line this winter you might consider it a waste of time to read this week's offering on how to prevent the problem. Not so. Frozen water lines are not like lightening. They can freeze repeatedly. And you don't have to live in snow country to be a victim. This year, even in many areas of sunny California where temperatures rarely drop to freezing, burst water pipes are taking their toll.
Here are a few things that you can do to reduce the chance of an incident like the one we experienced. Begin with insulation. Insulate your water heater and hot- and cold-water lines. Insulate all water lines - every single one that you can get to. It is most important to do this in the attic and between floors in homes where the between-floor joist are vented to the exterior. An overhead leak does the most damage (to such things as wallboard, plaster, furniture, flooring, wallcovering, etc.). Pipes in the attic and subarea are the ones that are the most susceptible to freezing and, usually, the easiest to get to. Pre-formed pipe insulation can be bought in 3- and 6-foot lengths for half-, three-quarter- and one-inch pipe sizes. A slit along the length makes installation a breeze. We suggest duct tape wrapped around end connections and at 18-inch intervals.
If you are in a really cold area where temperatures frequently drop below freezing, we suggest heat tape between the pipe and the insulation. Be sure that the manufacturer of the heat tape approves of the use of insulation over its product. Pipe tape is electrical wire designed to overheat itself. Pipe heating systems are safe and we recommend them, but you must be sure to precisely follow the manufacturer's installation, use and safety instructions. Finally, don't buy an import that isn't UL-approved.
Cold air freezes water pipes. Insulation and electrical pipe-warming systems are important to prevent the problem. But don't be confused and block off vents to the attic or subarea. This ventilation is needed to prevent fungus growth and other types of damage. On the other hand, be sure to seal gaps at pipe and wire penetrations in walls and floors. Frosty air can enter your home and cause a faucet or water line to freeze and explode. Penetrations can be blocked using a canned foam sealant or by stuffing the openings with pieces of insulation.
Experienced snow-dwellers know the value of a dripping faucet. To prevent pipes from freezing, let a faucet trickle. The slight movement of liquid in the system will usually do the trick. Run both hot and cold water - a tiny bit of each. Use the faucet located farthest from where the water line enters your home. Actually, all faucets located at outside walls should drip just a bit when the temperature drastically drops. And don't forget to insulate the pipes outside and in the garage or outbuilding.
Finally, make sure that your thermostat is set to at least 60. Also, look into a digital setback thermostat. A modern thermostat can be programmed to control the temperature in your home for weeks on end. Not a bad idea for vacations or if you have a busy work schedule.
Keep the following items on hand to make a temporary repair if your preventive measures fail and a burst results: a couple of hose clamps, a short piece of hosing and a pipe cutter or a hacksaw. Use the hacksaw or the pipe cutter to cut out the damaged section of pipe. Use the short section of hose to bridge the gap between the two good sections of pipe and use a clamp at each end to hold everything in place until the plumber arrives.
We learned that night in Lake Tahoe that fixing the break doesn't always completely solve the problem. The next night another line burst. We have since learned the importance of utilizing the techniques and information found in this article.