COLD FACTS

Plumber’s advice helps us all cope with hard freezes

By Dale Short, Daily Mountain Eagle
Posted 1/14/18

If the recent cold snap caught you off guard, you’re not alone. Frozen pipes, anybody? They’ve thawed by now, and this week’s milder days almost made us believe in an early spring. But don’t let the warmer weather fool you. Your neighborhood meteorologist will tell you that temps will drop into the teens before long, and even single digits.

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COLD FACTS

Plumber’s advice helps us all cope with hard freezes

Posted

If the recent cold snap caught you off guard, you’re not alone. Frozen pipes, anybody? They’ve thawed by now, and this week’s milder days almost made us believe in an early spring. But don’t let the warmer weather fool you. Your neighborhood meteorologist will tell you that temps will drop into the teens before long, and even single digits.

If you want to avoid a repeat of the recent frozen headache, you can follow the advice of veteran professional plumber Tracy Duncan.

First step? Be on the lookout for wind chill. “If there’s no wind,” Duncan says, “sometimes the temperature can be in the low teens and no pipes will freeze. But with gusty enough winds, like we’ve had lately, pipes can freeze at 33 or so.”

So, second step? Wrap your pipes.

It doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Although, one of your best bets is pipe sleeves made of insulating fiberglass, he says, with a tinfoil layer on the outside that serves as a wind barrier. But almost any fabric will do in a pinch: towels, rags, old clothes, old blankets cut into strips. “Anything you use,” Duncan says, “it’s always good to cut a piece of plastic and wrap around it a couple of times, then use duct tape so it won’t come off. The plastic blocks the wind, which is worse than the temperature.”

Foam insulation is not a great choice, he adds, because “wind can get into the pores and holes and the pipe can freeze. You’ll still need to wrap it in plastic.”

If you want to go high-tech, several manufacturers make pipe-heating cable that plugs into your electrical outlet. Some even contain thermostats so you don’t have to remember to plug the cable in when the temperature drops. “We’ve had good luck with it,” he says, “but like anything electrical you have to be careful. Make sure the wire touches the pipe the whole length of it, because if it’s not wrapped well enough and the pipe freezes and bursts, water starts going to the electricity there. So take time and make sure to do the job right.”

Using a space heater to warm pipes can also be dangerous, especially if you use it underneath a house, he says. “If you’re going to use one indoors, the oil-filled kind rather than the heat strips is safer.” Third step? Drip. The time-honored method of leaving your faucets dripping is effective, but Duncan says it can sometimes cause problems.

“If you’re on a septic tank,” Duncan says, “as wet as it’s been lately, the ground is not absorbing more water. It’s like a sponge that’s full, because it’s saturated from the rain. The water you’re putting into it can back up in the drain and spill over into your house. So watch to make sure that doesn’t happen.”

What happens if all three steps fail and your pipes freeze anyway? A hair-dryer or a heat gun can help thaw them, but don’t get over-confident and use a blowtorch or a hand torch. “If you put too much heat on it,” Duncan says, “you can destroy the pipe. Metal will pop like a cold glass when you put it in hot water. The plastic pipe will do the same thing.”

If you’re installing a new pipe from scratch, there’s a new type of plastic pipe called PEX, made of cross-linked polyethylene, that’s made to expand if frozen, he says. “It’s not advertised as ‘leak-proof’ but ‘leak resistant.’ We like to use it.”

The flurry of phone calls a plumber receives after a cold snap can be a mixed blessing, Duncan says. “Lots of times people think they’ve just got one frozen pipe, but the majority of jobs we go on, when you fix one leak and turn the water on, you find another leak. So it’s a process.

“It throws us behind because we can’t get to some customers for a couple of days. Our job is getting everybody’s water back on. So we take the calls and do the best we can. That’s about all that we can do.”

Dale Short’s email address is dale.short@gmail.com)