On my facebook profile it says my least favourite element is water but I do know it’s not really an element. But I stick with it because… I’ve had a lot of floods, a lot. My first apartment, my mom’s basement when I was house sitting, dozens of leaks from a sad copper sprinkler system and a condo gutting frozen hose pipe. I can tell you what the best way to design your house’s plumbing is, a trick to get a few seconds to solder a persistent copper pipe, pipe vs pex and most importantly how to prevent it in the first place. Also how do you know if you’re at risk, what to do once all hell brakes loose and how fix it long term.
Maybe this is early for you folks and the weather isn’t pipe freezing yet but it’s coming. In Canada at least water damage has taken over from fire for the number one insurance claim. To a certain extent there is nothing you can do once a burst happens but there’s actually a lot that can be done to prevent it.
Good home plumbing design: Believe it or not this is something you should consider when building a home. In fact it’s a pretty important consideration should you want to keep anything in your house dry long term. The best thing to do is to keep your plumbing away from the outside walls of your home. Not always possible but it almost gauentees you’ll never have a burst pipe. In the past copper pipe was used and some old school peeps still use it. But the thing is, pex is about 80% less likely burst if it freezes. Now some people will tell you it never bursts but that’s not true. The pipe itself isn’t likely to but the fitting can, I’ve seen in happen, trust me. Pipes tend to freeze in the same spots over and over, weakening the pipe and even a plastic one can only take so much. The other thing is pluming should be as far as possible from a vent.
One of the major weak points is your garden hose. Man do those suckers burst often. But there is an easy fix. The no freeze ones out there can and do freeze, one plumber suggested to me there were even worse than the regular ones. On to the easy fix right? Alright here it is have your plumber install a second valve at least three feet back from the actual hose outlet. Then in the fall open your outside faucet to roaring and go inside and close the interior valve, leave it like that for the winter. That might mean you need to have an access panel in a wall where it’s not pretty to look at, but it’s worth it!
If you have to have plumbing on outside walls make sure it’s well insulated and your not counting on blown in for plumbing protection at all. If you have to have plumbing in your attic, not likely unless you have a sprinkler system. Have your builder wrap plumbing in batt insulation then do blown it. It’s all too easy to unknowingly expose it when you’re up there if it’s just blown in plus blown in settles.
How do you know if your at risk: A big one is that’s it’s previously frozen even if it didn’t burst. If you’ve have had a burst somewhere or lost water make sure to take at least some of these steps there and check it regularly when the weather sucks. Also pray or buy a lotto ticket whichever is your thing. The weather that makes pipes freeze has two properties hella cold and or high winds. Our old condo building had this issue, and we did fix it but when the mercury dipped to about -15 degrees Celsius (or about 0 Fahrenheit) with a stiff wind pipes would freeze on the outside walls next to the vents. Now that number could be lower or higher depending on your house. We have one here that freezes around -8 Celsius (but it’s pex and if it burst it wouldn’t be a huge deal since it’s under the old porch). When the weather gets into the danger zone take preventative measures. But the thing is pipes don’t burst when they freeze they burst when they thaw, so it’s when the temperature goes back up that all hell breaks loose. Like $25 000 dollars in damage, move out for a month and 1500 gallons in your 900 square foot condo hell. That’s because water is at it’s less dense (biggest) just the freezing point than just above. The freeze happens slow but the thaw is fast then it reaches that magic expanding point and BOOM. Long storey short they burst when they thaw.
Prevention is key: But there is nothing you can do right, no TOTALLY wrong. We did all the remedies to our building listed below but for three years by taking preventative measures we were able to avoid bursts in 12 units. It’s pretty easy actually and costs almost nothing. If you have determined you are at risk you can leave cabinet doors in plumbing outside walls open to let the heat in. Think the cabinet under your kitchen or bathroom sink. And the best thing you can do is to leave the faucet open on a slow drip. Sure it might cost you a bit more for water and maybe electric or oil for the hot water but it’s better than dealing with a house insurance claim and loosing things you can’t get back. Ideally you will have a one lever faucet, turn it to the middle and make it drip, if you have two knobs make them both drip slightly. If you have a ‘problem spot’ it might be worth it to switch to a one handle faucet if you can’t do other things.
But one of the great frustrations in life is making no drip modern facets drip. You will swear, it will be worth it. I had success turning it on to a trickle then tapping the handle until the desired result is achieved. Some days when your late to work this will take 40 trys, it’s still worth it. For a two handle faucets get a drip going in the first memorize the drip time then turn the other util it drips slightly more often. It doesn’t have to be fast just a slight drip. That’s because running water tends not to freeze, don’t forget your hose outlet too. Not a whole lot can be done with a washer but they tend not to be on outside walls. It’s also not worth it to cut the heat in the long run as lower temperatures inside do make breaks more likely.
In the moment: So what do you do if you are already in the moment. If you don’t have water in a fixture but have it everywhere else chances are it’s frozen. Here’s shat to do.
Frozen but no burst
- Open the faucets and leave them that way, this can force the ice through as it thaws.
- Turn off the water at the pump/main if you can
- Turn up the heat in the area and blow heat with a fan at the affected wall.
- Potentially remove drywall to locate the blockage or just the pipe and heat it with a blow dryer or very carefully (perhaps a professional should be called) using a blow torch.
- Remove anything that can not be cleaned if it gets wet from the area
- Stay close if the water is still on and the pipe has not thawed in case it bursts to clean up.
If you pipe has frozen and burst
- turn off the water at the main to the whole home
- call 911 if and only if you can’t turn off the water to your house. This is an emergency (they’ll send the fire department and it’s in their job description.) They can turn it off at the city main.
- Turn off the electricity if you think wires or panels have gotten wet.
- Call a plumber the burst needs to be fixed right away
- start collecting things to prevent them from further damage.
- Call your insurance company they will send a mitigation crew to minimize damages. believe it or not it’s not too soon to start thinking about mould. If you can’t get to someone or don’t have insurance call them directly.
- Then and only then start thinking about cleaning up the water.
- Cry, you’ve had a bad day.
Long term fixes: So you’ve had a flood or a freeze what can you do to prevent it from ever happening again. There are a few options and really none are likely to be easy and we’ll go in increasing difficulty. If the pipe is accessible add foam insulation around the pipe and tape it closed. My mom had a pipe that had frozen a few times but never burst when she added a downstairs bathroom and this was enough to prevent it from freezing, but it was pex. But that brings us to our next point. Since pex is less likely to burst consider changing the plumbing in that area from copper to pex even if you have to remove drywall to do it. Another option is to add an electric pipe warmer to the pipe rather than insulation alone. These usually need to be plugged in but they keep a lot of the length of the pipe warm if it’s copper as copper conducts heat. This step isn’t as helpful with pex but still talk to your plumber about it. Now on to the big ones add insulation to the area to protect the plumbing from the cold. This can mean replacing old batt with newer stuff with a higher R-value. Next time you replace your siding build up the house in foam insulation and put your new siding over it. You might also have spray foam added from the inside. Or in certain instances add more blown in to your attic if that’s were the issue had been. Finally move the plumbing to a warmer spot. If you have a kitchen remodel coming up plan to move the fixtures into the house more and away from outside walls.