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Freeze & Burst: the Short Tutorial

The arctic temperatures continue marauding through Memphis and people’s pipes continue to freeze and burst.  And I continue to hear about it.

Some things cannot be helped.  If  a meteorite comes through your roof and smashes your toilet — well, we all have days like that.

On the other hand, there are things you can do to protect your pipes from freezing and bursting.

First: insulate them.  I got to one home and found the copper icemaker supply line running across the attic with no insulation until it descended into the ceiling over the refrigerator.  After I repaired it, I took a roll of insulation which obviously had lain up there for decades and I spread it over the length of copper tube from beginning to end.  Anybody could have done that before the freeze.  It would have saved thousands of dollars in flood damage.

Second: block the air vents, by which I mean the little windows around the foundation (if the house is on a crawl space) and the gable louvers.  Often I will see all of the pipes under a house doing just fine except for the ones near an open vent.  The ground has heat in it and it radiates under the house.  If the vents are closed up, it helps to keep that heat in.  Also, the moving air has greater ability to freeze a pipe.

Third: keep things warm when a pipe is near an outside wall.  I saw a home where the heating system was poor, so they closed off a bathroom, trying to heat the rest of the house.  Without the indoor heat to help, the pipes in the bathroom wall froze & burst.  This is a common problem in a laundry room because they’re often located in an out-of-the-way spot that, for the same reasons, isn’t heated.

Fourth: add some heat.  You have to be  careful with this step lest you burn something, but adding heat is the only way that some situations will stay thawed.  A halogen work light puts out a lot of heat.  In a somewhat closed-off space, a 60 watt light bulb can make all the difference in the world.  (Think of the space behind a washing machine with, perhaps, some cardboard lying atop it.)  If the attic vents are closed off completely, opening the door to the attic will allow heat in from the house.

Fifth: leave each faucet (except for the outside hose bibbs) running.  Everybody knows this trick; by continually replacing the cooling water with warmer water from underground, the pipe doesn’t freeze.  (If you read some expert talking about a “piston effect,” ignore him.)  A stream as big as a matchstick will do the trick.  For the outside faucets, just insulate them well.  Those styrofoam covers work well, but you can also wrap the faucet with heavy terrycloth or even newspaper, which is a great insulator, albeit short-lived.

Last of all, everybody needs to know how he will shut off his water if something goes wrong one day.  There are a lot of clueless people wandering through life, but you don’t have to be one of them.   Does your house have a shutoff in it?  They’re usually about a foot off the floor in a cabinet or closet.  Is yours in the basement?  The older homes in Memphis (pre-1980 or so) must be shut off at the meter by the street.  Such folks are doomed without a meter key.

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