When your home’s plumbing system is functioning properly, you don’t notice it. Ideally, we’d never have to spare a thought for the pipes and valves which live behind the walls and under the floors of our houses, but it’s important to be aware of how they work and potential causes of malfunction that could end up costing thousands of dollars.
An ounce of prevention in the form of an occasional once-over by a licensed plumber should be all it takes to keep everything running smoothly all year, but unusually cold weather can wreak havoc on your home’s pipes.
In colder climates like the Midwest and the Northeast, homes, and buildings are typically erected with pipes fully within the insulation of the home itself. It makes sense, as these places average three or four below-freezing and snowy months every year. In our part of Texas, that’s not usually an issue, so it’s extra important to be aware of unusually cold weather fronts that can wreak havoc on uninsulated piping.
Cold Weather and Burst Pipes
It’s a nightmare scenario; you go out of town for the holidays to visit family or friends, only to come home to a burst pipe and the litany of headaches that this inevitably entails. The average insurance claim for homeowners whose pipes have ruptured due to cold weather is well over ten thousand dollars because it isn’t just the broken pipe that needs to be serviced.
A tiny crack in a water supply line can flood your home with up to two-hundred-fifty gallons of water per day, every day. If you’re out of town when it happens, and it goes unchecked, this can be an absolute disaster, resulting in damaged flooring, walls, and furniture, not to mention ruining irreplaceable heirlooms or emotionally valuable items.
In addition, water soaking into the walls and floors of your home can create a fertile breeding ground for toxic mold and other fungal infestations if not properly dried out during the repair process, which in itself is a costly and time-consuming endeavor.
Cold weather causes pipes to freeze when the heat from the water within the pipe is dissipated through the metal into the below-freezing air around it. This means that, usually, the municipal water supply lines and the mainline which supplies water to your house are not going to freeze; latent heat energy in the ground itself, as well as the pipes being below the frost line, generally protect against this eventuality. It’s the connection to your house, where the line comes closer to ground level and enters your home, where heat can dissipate and begin the freezing process.
While water will freeze at thirty-two degrees in a controlled environment, it usually needs to be colder than that for a prolonged period of time in order to cause freezing within pipes. Water within the pipes typically retains enough heat from the municipal source to stave off freezing problems at this temperature. That said, a drop of a few degrees can cause all the difference, and it’s better to be prepared for cold weather than to foot the bill for, essentially, rebuilding an entire portion of your home.
When pipes burst due to freezing, it’s not actually the ice that does the damage; it’s the water within your residential plumbing system being pressurized by an ice plug and having nowhere to go. Without an outlet like a faucet or the main water line, the pressure will build and build until the pipe bursts laterally and begins costing you lots of money. There are a few easy ways to help prevent this during exceptionally cold forecasts and avoid that emergency plumber call:
- Install insulation sleeves on any exposed piping in the attic, garage, or crawl space during the fall, well before potential cold fronts move in. These pipes are most susceptible to bursting, as they aren’t kept warm by your home’s regular insulation.
- Close vents and seal cracks or gaps in exterior walls and your house’s foundation. This will help guarantee that your pipes aren’t unnecessarily exposed to any cold outdoor air, and it’s generally good advice for optimizing energy efficiency in your home.
- Maintain a household temperature of at least fifty degrees around the clock, and make sure the warm air inside is circulating as much as possible to areas with exposed piping.
- If you turn on a faucet and nothing comes out, call a plumber Attempting to treat frozen pipes on your own can be dangerous, and it can be difficult for an untrained layperson to pinpoint where exactly the freeze has occurred in the first place.
Water Heaters Working Overtime
There are few things more frustrating than waking up on a freezing cold morning, only to realize that your hot water is out. It can derail your entire day; in the summer it may be feasible to simply rinse off in cold water, but, when weather hovers around freezing, cold showers are absolutely off the table.
Having a water heater in good working order is an absolutely essential comfort during the colder part of the year, and having to repair or replace one on short notice is not going to be cheap. As such, it’s important to keep abreast of your water heater’s functionality, during autumn, and to be aware of any potential issues before they arise.
During the cold months, there are a lot of factors that can negatively impact your water heater’s normal functionality. For one, we tend to use a lot more water when it’s cold outside; families will opt to stay in and hunker down rather than leaving the house to be social, leading to a general increase in usage during winter months. We also opt to enjoy hotter, longer showers than we do during other times of the year since nothing feels better than warm steam on a cold morning.
If you have a family and everyone is using hot water around the same time, you’re probably going to see a marked decrease in the amount of hot water available at any given time. This doesn’t necessarily mean your water heater is malfunctioning—it just has to work a lot harder to heat the water to your specified level when the incoming water is colder due to the weather.
When your heater is set to one hundred degrees, it’s going to do its best to get the water to that temperature as quickly as possible for your enjoyment. During warm parts of the year, this isn’t a very difficult task, and hot water may replenish so quickly as to seem unlimited.
However, when the weather is closer to freezing, your hot water heater is going to have to do a lot more work to raise the temperature of the water coming in from outside. Let your hot water tap run for a bit and look for steam before you despair; sometimes, your water heater just needs a little time to work.
Hot water heaters generally last ten to thirteen years before their heating elements begin to weaken and performance starts to dip. If you live in an area with unusually hard water, where mineral precipitate makes a harder job for the machinery, you may need to consider a replacement on an earlier timeframe. Ditto if you have a big family and the water heater is in near-constant use; in this case, consider buying a heater with a larger tank.
When in Doubt, Always Call a Professional
While performing your own jury-rigged plumbing repair job based off of YouTube tutorials or online checklists might seem like a great way to save money, your pipes are one area you want to leave to professionals. Shoddy workmanship can come back to bite you to the tune of tens of thousands, so, ultimately, it’s always better to consult with someone who does this for a living.
A semi-annual plumbing inspection is a good idea just to make sure that no surprises rear their heads at inopportune times of year. Even if everything seems to be in good working order, a seasoned plumber’s eyes on your property will alert you to any weak points in your home’s plumbing system and help you keep ahead of repairs.
It’s always a worthwhile investment to make sure your house’s plumbing system and hot water heater are in tip-top shape; better to have peace of mind than to be surprised by bursts and leaks in the wintertime and have to spring for emergency repair work.