Friday, January 15, 2010

Tis' the Season to be Freezin'!

A homeowner's worst nightmare...

You get up on a cold winter morning, go in to turn on the shower, and...nothing. No water. Your water pipes are frozen - what you do next can mean the difference between a nuisance and thousands of dollars in repairs and cleanup.

The problem isn't that pipes freeze, it's how pipes freeze.

First off, ice doesn't burst pipes. As ice forms on the inner walls of a water pipe it takes up space and causes a spike in water pressure. It's the elevated water pressure that actually causes the damage. Don't worry, the rest of the water lines can usually accomodate this slight increase in water pressure, unless...

The situation changes dramatically once a section of pipe freezes solid. When this occurs a section of pipe is isolated and experiences a rapid and extreme increase in water pressure. As the ice plug expands, the pressure gets higher and higher until the point of failure is reached.

The pipe failure almost always occurs downstream of the ice plug. The water line downstream of the plug, between the plug and fixture, becomes a closed system. The water line upstream of the plug, between the plug and water meter, can typically still accomodate the excess water pressure.

The pipe failure may occur in the heated part of the home. Because the entire isolated portion of the plumbing system is under the same pressure, the failure occurs at the weakest point, not necessarily at the coldest point.

How do I prevent freeze damage?

-Insulate pipes in attics and crawlspaces (especially copper pipes).
-Install insulating covers on exterior faucets.
-Close crawlspace vents during a hard freeze.
-Provide pressure relief.

Since freeze damage is caused by excessive water pressure, a simple way to prevent damage would be to install some type of pressure relief valve system. There are several high-tech approaches being researched, like modified faucet washers, special pressure relief valves and expansion chambers.

While technology is all well and good, a simple, easy and cheap (free) solution already exists...

Many homeowners inadvertently create a crude pressure relief valve when they leave a faucet dripping. Although the intention is to prevent the pipes from freezing in the first place, the dripping faucet serves as a pressure relief valve, preventing damage even if the pipe does freeze up.

Warning! The biggest mistake a homeowner can make upon noticing freeze blockage is to close the faucet! Closing the faucet confines the water, allowing for the pressure increase that bursts pipes. As long as the faucet remains open, the likelihood of bursting is remote.

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