Hoo– cold one today! (Here, and everywhere)
Living quarters: 43F/6C (yes, I did just light the fire)
Cellar cold-spot: 38F/3C
Florida family: 36F/2C !! (Brother sent a photo of nephew wearing a “hoodie” sweatshirt to stay warm while eating breakfast– however, green grass and lush shrubbery can be spied through the window.)
This might be as good a day as any to discuss the perennially-asked question, “How do you keep your pipes from freezing?” (Also sometimes phrased in the form of a statement, such as, “You dumb #&#*. You’ll be #&*(ing sorry when your #%%#ing pipes #*(%@#ing freeze ha ha haaa!”) Anyway, it’s a good and valid question. In the old days, people had wells and outhouses; the limiting factor for how cold a house could be kept was the bodily tolerance of the human inhabitants. Nowadays, with fancy indoor plumbing, the limiting factor is the point at which pipes start freezing.
Those who live in tropical climes may not fully appreciate the hazards of frozen pipes. The best case scenario is that the water freezes in a pipe, temporarily clogging it, then when thawed, the water goes on its way without having caused any damage. However, because water expands when it freezes, there is a tendency for pipes to crack when the water in them freezes. In the worst-case pipe-burst scenario, the water in the cracked pipe is under pressure (i.e., it’s a water supply line, rather than a drain pipe), and you are away on vacation in Tahiti when it all happens. Then you may have thousands of gallons of water sprayed into your home. You could, for example, come home to a scene like this (only it might be in your living room, instead of your garage)(good thing these folks have AAA!)
Obviously, this is bad. How to avoid? For cold-house living, I propose four phases of action to avoid frozen pipes: (1) Assessment, (2) General prevention, (3) Monitoring, (4) Acute Prevention. Let’s review each!
Assessment: First, you need to know where all your water pipes are. In particular, you need to know if any of them run through the outside walls of your house. In my opinion, it’s crazy to run pipes through outside walls anyplace where winter temps routinely go below freezing, but strangely it is done, even up here. If you have such plumbing, you should probably forget going cold-house until you’ve addressed it somehow. Case Report: My good friends S. & J, for example, discovered this winter that the previous owner of their house had created some outside-wall pipes, by “finishing off” an area of the cellar with drywall. Some of their pipes, previously open to the cellar, were thus sealed off against an outside brick wall. Worse yet, they found the previous owner had put in some insulation– not between the pipes and the outside wall, but between the inside wall and the pipes! Effectively, these pipes were outdoors. Evidently those people used the cellar area for a dog-grooming business, and so kept it very warm, and this was enough to prevent disaster. But J. & S. did what normal people might do– kept the cellar temp in the 50’s– and then one very cold morning last month found they had no water pressure in any of their taps. Diagnosis involved cutting many holes in their walls, and cure involved warming the pipes. Here is a photo:
Thanks to unbelievable luck, none of their pipes had burst. The mess would’ve been ungodly.
Here at the Cold House, we don’t have any pipes in outside walls. We do have one half-bath in a detached part of the house that we don’t even try to keep warm in winter– that area is basically ambient outside temp now. Beyond that we do have pipes in a few dubious areas of the main house– for example, running through a closet that has a door to the living room but is otherwise adjacent to an outside wall and the closed-off guest room. Also there’s a spot in the cellar where some pressure water lines and a bathtub drain pipe run about 4″ away from a crummy old window and our cat-door (which is a little drafty). So those were areas of concern. Early in the winter I took the remote sensor from the digital thermometer around to these areas and checked them out. I decided that that area in the cellar was going to be the coldest pipe-location in the house.
General Prevention: The next step is doing something about the potential problem areas. One solution, as employed by the previous owners of J. & S.’s house, is simply to overheat every part of the house, whether in use or not. There are also various commercial products, such as this stuff, that apply electrical heat to your pipes to keep them above freezing. This isn’t a bad idea, but is kind of a pricey hassle. Insulation may be easier and cheaper. Of course, pipes don’t really have any innate heat, so just wrapping them in a blanket won’t keep them warm– but insulating cold areas nearby can prevent them from getting cold. In our case, I stuck some fiberglass mat insulation over the cellar wall and window near the pipe area; this made a considerable difference. (As for the half-bath in the detached area: before winter I shut off that water supply, drained the related water pipes completely, and ran non-toxic RV antifreeze down the drains & toilet. Having winterized boats helps with that skill-set, but it wasn’t hard.)
Monitoring: Having checked out the pipe situation and done a few things to ameliorate anticipated problems, you can start to get a sense of whether you’re going to have actual problems. As the days grow colder, I began to get a sense of how fast the house cooled, and where, and how much this was effected by different sorts of weather. This is information I simply didn’t have when a furnace automatically kept the house at 68 (days) or 62 (nights) all winter long. But after watching the thermometer for a while, and moving its spare sensor from place to place in the house, I began to have a feel for what was going to happen. Eventually I put the wireless sensor right on that pipe in the cellar. The first really cold night (the night where my friends’ pipes froze) I brought the thermometer station up to bed with me, and woke up a few times, panicked, to check the pipe temperature. It didn’t get below 40, in spite of the sub-zero temps outside. Since then, I monitor it a bit if the forecast predicts an especially cold night.
Acute Prevention: If things are looking bad for the pipes on a given night, the simplest thing to do is just leave the water running at a trickle. Basically geothermal heating of your pipes– the incoming water from below ground being somewhere above freezing. You could even leave the hot water tap open a bit, but that’s probably overkill. The tub drain mentioned above has a large trap below it, holding a cup or two of water– I’d consider pouring a little of the RV antifreeze in there, if it was going to be -20F overnight, but so far it’s been unnecessary to go to such extremes.