Preparation key to keeping pipes from freezing

Published 10:33 am Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Mother Nature, Old Man Winter and Mr. Freeze are ganging up on local residents.

The extreme cold weather tests the mettle of everyone both indoors and out.

It also tests the metal of water pipes.

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First, the good news.

Austin Utilities has not had any broken water mains last week after one occurred last Friday (Jan. 9) in the city.

A utility spokesman, Todd Jorgenson, said there have been relatively few this winter.

Truth be told, there’s nothing that can be done to prevent water mains from happening. Age and deterioration of underground pipes can’t be halted by human intervention.

However, indoor water pipe problems can be forestalled.

And an age-old remedy for avoiding frozen water pipes still works today.

“Keep the water moving,” said Mick O’Connor of M.J. O’Connor Inc., 1507 14th Street Southeast. “Just look at the water flowing over the Cedar River dam on Fourth Avenue. It never freezes, because it’s always moving.”

O’Connor said the “let a faucet drip” advice can help prevent pipes from freezing in homes during extreme cold weather.

He also advised, keeping cupboard doors open to let room heat to surround water pipes beneath kitchen and bathroom sinks.

“Another way is to run a fan on them. That will help, too,” O’Connor said.

When water freezes in pipes, don’t use a blow torch to thaw them. According to O’Connor, that’s extremely dangerous. Instead, use a hair dryer or heat gun.

It may be tempting for homeowners and renters to shut off the heat to areas — basements, extra bathrooms or unused bedrooms — in an attempt to reduce home energy bills.

That’s also tempting more problems, according to O’Connor.

Water pipes — particularly those along outer walls — are susceptible to freezing, when temperatures dip below freezing and strong winds pick up.

And water pipes in a crawl space beneath a home addition are a disaster waiting to happen in frigid weather unless warm air from a basement furnace is funneled to the area.

The phone rings frequently at M.J. O’Connor Inc. and other plumbing contractors, while the extreme winter weather grips everybody and everything.

“We’re starting to see the phone calls pick up,” O’Connor admitted. “They have problems that need taking care of.”

But O’Connor said more problems lurk when the winter thaw begins and pipes blocked with frozen water can burst.

Residents need a “help line,” when winter weather creates a new set of problems every season.

According to Steve Arens, owner of Arens Heating and Cooling, Third Street Southeast , his business is taking more calls, too, from people, inquiring about how weather can affect their homes.

“I’m not a plumber,” he said, “but the advice I give people applies to many situations they are facing.”

For instance, the cold weather is also dry and residents will ask Arens what they can do to increase the humidity in their homes.

That problem is simple to solve: Add a humidifier.

But too much humidity in the attic can pose a different set of problems, when the world outside is mired in freezing weather.

Sometimes — make that — frequently, the problems are man-made.

“Boxes left stacked in the corner of a room with exposed outside walls can result in frost accumulating on them” he said. “This, in turn, could mean mold and mildew can form in the sheet rock or other wall materials, because of the moisture and that could mean a health hazard to the home occupants,” he said.

Humidity in an attic is another danger. The humidity can create frost and ice crystals in extreme cold weather. When they envelope the attic insulation, mold and mildew can grow and go unnoticed. Even giant “ice balls,” that could break through the ceilings in upstairs rooms.

Another situation that worries Arens occurs when snow and ice form on the uninsulated portion of a home’s overhang. This can create, what Arena called an “ice dam.”

When snow melts on the insulated portion of the roof, the water settles at the ice dam and can seep into shingles.

The result: Roof damage when the winter thaw begins.

The National Weather Service said late this week the Arctic Clipper weather will be sustained and not loosen its grip too soon.

Bottom line: Make sure the home furnace works, water pipes are protected and keep a plumber’s telephone number handy to call if they aren’t.

For more information, call M. J. O’Connor, Inc. at 433-5017 or Arens Heating and Cooling at433-5652 or any other plumbing, heating or cooling contractor.