Weathering the cold snap

Weathering the cold snap

Whoever said that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure must have experienced frozen and burst pipes. With winter upon us, a few small, simple tasks can prevent days without water and an expensive repair bill.

"Keep your water line in a heated area; otherwise, it's just a matter of time," says Mike Davis, owner of SOS Plumbing in Talent.

Many of the winter calls Davis and his colleagues receive are for burst pipes in crawl spaces under houses that do not get warmed by a home's heating system.

"The wind chill is what really keeps the temperatures down. Close the vents with foam insulation to keep the wind out. Cover pipes with pipe insulation — it's usually easy to install yourself," adds Davis.

The situation is a bit different in an attic. If you completely insulate water pipes in your attic, you may lose the benefit of heat rising from below. Consider insulating only the top half of your pipes in that situation.

Many water pipes don't benefit from existing heat, even in the main part of a house. Pipes often are attached to exterior walls, where cold can seep in.

"Open cabinet doors. Anything with pipes on exterior walls, you need to get the heat to them," says Davis.

Going on a winter vacation? Take two precautionary steps.

"Disasters we saw last year include many where people were out of town and had turned their thermostats way down. Keep some heat in your house. Also, know where your water (master) shut-off is so you can turn it off quickly, and keep it off when you're on vacation. Otherwise, when the thaw comes, you could have water gushing for days," explains Davis.

In exterior buildings without heat sources, such as pump houses, consider adding a heat source. During cold snaps, Grover Electric and Plumbing Supply in Medford routinely sells out of two particular items: heat tape and "Thermo Cube," designed to help bring heat to outbuildings.

"Heat tape: It's used for exposed places, but it's not designed to thaw pipe, so you have to cover it with insulation," says Brad Skinner, store manager at Grover's.

Heat tape is essentially a heating element that plugs into an outlet and generates a small amount of heat. Read instructions carefully, as operation can vary among manufacturers. Do not use heat tape with plastic pipe or other materials that could melt or cause a fire hazard.

"We also sell out of the Thermo Cube — a plug with a built-in thermostat. You can plug it into a heat lamp so that when the temperature drops, the heat lamp kicks on. That way, you don't have to remember to go out and turn the lamp on or off," says Skinner.

Skinner and Davis both have plenty of customers who forget to unhook their hoses from exterior faucets. When hoses are left attached, water can become trapped, freeze and burst the hose bib or faucet.

When you're installing new water lines, consider using PEX (cross-linked polyethylene) pipe for the above-ground section. This plastic, drinking water-safe pipe expands and contracts. Using this technology won't prevent freezing pipes, but it will prevent them from bursting.

When the thaw comes, PEX regains its old shape; it has "memory." By employing simple techniques to prevent burst pipes, you won't have to rely on your own memory when the freeze arrives.

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