It is not a disaster but it sure can feel like it. It can come out of nowhere, leaving you with a sense of complete powerlessness, and subject to the discretion of your local plumbers who suddenly have more work that they can handle.
If the heat goes out, you can bundle up, use the fireplace, and “spot heat.” If the power goes out, break out the candles, flashlights, and tell stories. But life without water is an entirely different “animal.” Stop and think for a moment about how many different areas of everyday life depend upon running water. You wake up one morning and the most basic acts of drinking water, cleaning yourself, and disposal of body waste are gone.
I am talking about frozen water-supply lines. This occurs when the water inside the pipes freeze, expand, causing the pipes to swell and burst once they thaw. Then you no longer have running water. The South has the most incidents of frozen and burst pipes, according to the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety.
So exactly what temperature range will my pipes be at risk of freezing? There is no easy answer. Exposure to wind and the resulting wind chill is nearly as important as the temperature. Pipes can indeed freeze when the air temperature hits freezing (32-degrees Fahrenheit), but the risk is far greater if exposure to wind drives the actual temperature of the pipes much lower. A survey by the Business Research Council found that 20 degrees Fahrenheit marked the danger zone. Yet I know of a property where the plumbing in the unheated basement has never frozen. I have experienced froze and burst pipes, at least four different times, in either my own home or at unoccupied rental properties. It’s inherently tricky and unpredictable.
The good, and much more definitive, news is that there is actually a whole lot you can do to prevent your pipes from freezing or – at minimum -- severely reduce the risk. But unlike gauging your antifreeze level and refilling, or protecting outdoor plants, this isn’t something you can easily take care of at the last minute.
When faced with upcoming weather that poses this risk, the first step is to choose one of two basic strategies. 1. Turn your water off at the supply, completely drain the pipes by opening every valve inside of the home, and leave the water off until the threat passes. 2. Keep your water supply on, barely open every valve, and allow both the hot and cold to drip. Protect and warm the most at-risk areas of the plumbing. Open all under-the-sink cabinet doors to allow warmer air to reach the water pipes. With either strategy, install an inexpensive protective cover on all outside faucets. Also, check and see if your home has a shut-off exclusive to the outside faucets. Shut off and drain.
The first choice is the best for unoccupied homes, and anytime a home lacks central heat. The basic tasks take just minutes, but you aren’t done yet. Get your shop vac. Place the end of the hose over each water outlet, form a tightest fit as possible, turn on unit and suck out as much water as possible. Otherwise, water at the low points of your plumbing stay there and could still freeze and burst. The elbow joints of your plumbing are especially vulnerable. Finally, the toilet bowls will still contain some water. Turn off the water supply to the toilet then flush immediately to minimize amount of water left in the tank. As a critical last step, protect the toilet bowls by pouring two or three cups of antifreeze or window-washer fluid in them. They can freeze and burst too!
Now you have your system or strategy in place for the short term (freezing weather), here is what to do over the long term. Evaluate the most vulnerable areas of the plumbing. Proximity to outside walls is a big red flag. If at all possible, install an electric water-pipe heat cable on the pipe at these areas. As added measure, insulate over the cable with foam pipe insulation. Why? Because the electric could always go off at any time. Insulate all accessible plumbing with same material.
Some additional tips.
1. Before leaving the water dripping, make sure first that you do not have a kitchen or bath clog.
2. Be sure to caution and educate your tenants or houses guests, well in advance, then message them again prior to freezing weather. Instruct them on how to turn off the water supply both at the source and inside the home. Supply them with a water turn-off tool.
3. Frozen pipes do not always burst. So if you wake up and the water does not come on, leave the valves open. It could thaw out if the freeze was not severe. Do not attempt to thaw with any type of flame device and risk damaging the pipe. Just wait.
4. Store about a three-day supply of drinkable water in sanitized containers, about three gallons per person per day.
Since life rarely goes as planned, I highly recommend that you prepare for the worst. Assemble a basic repair kit that includes two large-diameter tube cutters and an assortment of the push-fit type of repair parts that allow non-plumbers to fix freeze damage to copper permanently! I cannot recommend a comparable DIY emergency-repair product for PVC or polybutylene pipes. Exactly what sizes you need should be evident after your pre-freeze plumbing examination. You kit should also include emery cloth, a treble light and extension cord, a quality flashlight and a headlight. Get what you need now. After a cold snap a few years ago, my store ran out of the push-fit products for a day or two.
Also, I want you to practice. I am not asking you to allow your pipes to freeze in order to be sure that you know how to fix them. Instead, buy a short piece of copper and practice cutting, installing and removing the repair connectors. It is really prudent to be familiar with this task, in a non-emergency setting, before tackling it for the first time cold, in the dark, lying on your back or stomach.
Once again, although it might feel like a disaster, or par with fire, flood or tornado, it isn’t. Unlike true disasters, burst plumbing can largely be prevented.
Then you will be in a much better a position to help neighbors who were not prepared for the freeze -- or when true disaster strikes.