Monday, January 6, 2014

Cold emergency - the issue of your pipes

Local commercial media has been recommending this site as a resource for information on how to deal with the prospect of pipes freezing tonight and tomorrow morning. 

Unfortunately, that resource is geared toward northern folks who routinely face that kind of hazard, not those of us in Houston who face this predicament only rarely and whose houses are built "inside out" relative to houses in many parts of America (in other words, our houses are designed to retain coolness, not heat, and they are configured accordingly).
January 9, 2010:  Oh my word, it was cold here!!  That's our original Centerpointe analog water meter surrounded by puddles that froze solid during the construction phase of our house.  There were a few days that winter when we amused ourselves by driving around Section 9 watching all the busted pipes shoot water into the air at the other houses that were also still under construction at that time. 

My point being, it does happen here.  Pipes froze in 2010 and they might do so again tonight. 
Let me give you a crash course on the issue of crashed pipes.  Your understanding of this issue must start with awareness of how your home is configured.
Your home could vary tremendously from what I'm showing here, but the basic principles should be the same.  If your home is newer, somewhere inside it you will find a water supply manifold (older homes may have just a single line coming in and then branching off from there).  Ours was a Meritage built in 2009/2010, and so our water lines are made of PEX, but I believe most of the Brightons in Section 9 have PVC pipes (looks like white plastic). 

In this photo showing our house in "stick stage" before drywall was put up, you can see the back side of the manifold (child for scale).  Red means hot water lines, and blue means cold water lines.  But notice that both run from manifold into the attic above, where they are not insulated. 
On the other side of the wall, there's a cabinet that has a removable plastic panel that looks like this.  Yours is probably located in your garage if you have a one-story house.  If you have a 2-story, I'm not sure where you'd find it.  Maybe in your garage or in a closet. 
We have a freakin' garage storage cabinet in front of our PEX manifold so I can't show you a proper pic, but if I peek behind the cabinet, this is what I see:  a series of shut-off knobs on the lines that run hot and cold water to various faucets around the house. 
You've probably read accounts that tell you that, to avoid having your pipes freeze, either leave all your taps dripping, or shut down your individual feeds using the series of knobs that you'll find in your manifold cabinet, and then drain your water lines by opening the taps.  But there's a potential concern with that second approach.
Shutting and draining is only going to relieve the water pressure between your faucets and your manifold.  It will, indeed, drain much of the water from individual lines that run un-insulated through your attic and thus are vulnerable to freezing. But...
...there's still a potential issue with the main supply line that runs to your house from the street.  With the duration and intensity of the freeze we're expecting tonight, that line could potentially remain vulnerable.  It also runs through the attic, un-insulated, in many local houses. 

Screengrabbed from a NOAA forecast site. 
What I'm going to show in the pics that follow is NOT something that I necessarily recommend that you do.  I'm just going to say that there are people out there in greater Houston who, when faced with an un-insulated water service supply pipe and extended hard freeze conditions, will take this kind of action upon themselves.  This stuff below is for informational purposes only.
If you live in Centerpointe, your water meter is on your front lawn and it looks a lot like this.  There are little grooves in the outer edge of the cap.  It can be popped off using a screw driver. 
It looks like this on the inside.  I believe we all have digital meters by this time.  The cap of this one is open to show the read-out.  Anyone who pops off a water meter cover like this should be very careful not to damage the electronics (you can be fairly certain that you'd be made to pay for any damage you did).   
There's a special tool that's made for valving off the water supply at the meter.  These tools aren't always available at the local hardware store, however.  But you can see how the groove in the tool matches up with the corresponding notch in the valve which is visible at the very center of this photo. 

It's not an easy valve to turn - it's not something that can be done by hand or and it often can't be done easily with ordinary tools.  (And they usually only turn a quarter of a revolution, by the way.)

You should know that shutting your main valve isn't necessarily a slam dunk solution to a freeze threat.  Sometimes these water valves and line segments are old and degraded and if you were to mess with them, you could break the line itself and have an instant fountain, a very expensive fountain, in your front yard.  That happened to me at a previous residence.  Fortunately, it was the water company that broke the valve, not me, so I didn't have to pay to fix it.   
If the water is shut off at the street and the house lines drained, presumably this will, indeed, minimize the chances that an extended hard freeze will result in line damage. 

You could potentially get into trouble if you accidentally mess up your water meter, your main incoming valve, or the line.  You could also get into a heap of trouble if your water line freezes and splits.  Every once in a while, life invites us to pick our poison, eh?   
How cold is it right now??  Well, this was my bird bath this morning.  Bye bye subtropics, at least for a few days. 

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