Here in Portland, Oregon temperatures can drop below freezing for long periods of time during the winter months, you had better winterize your plumbing pipes or suffer the consequences. Each freezing year plumbers are inundated with plumbing emergencies. Sometimes due to the sheer volume of calls, customers can be out of service for hours or days until a professional can get to you. It’s been our experience that the vast majority of these emergencies were preventable with just a few minor weatherization measures. How can you prepare your house to avoid winter damage, once these temperatures drop below 32°F or 0°C?
One of the best ways to prepare your house is to have enough information about your house plumbing system. You should also have enough information just in case there is a home emergency or burst pipe. Remember that a little bit of education can go a long way, especially when it comes to your home. You and your family should know where the water shutoff valve is to the home. Your family should know where the water supply and the water drainage valves are, just in case there are any problems. Make sure that your family understands the home water system. This would include water heaters, water supply pipes, water drainage pipes, sinks, bathtubs, showers, toilets, dishwashers, boilers, heating systems and drainage traps. With this knowledge, no one will need to panic in the event of an emergency and the situation should be easily resolved.
Here in the Portland Metro area there are many different types of structures and building styles. The main water shut off can be in different locations depending on the year your home was built and the type of home that it is. Plumbing code mandates that a shut off must exist in an accessible location. However, this location varies from home to home. Factor in the possibility that your plumbing system has been changed, updated or altered without proper permits and/or without following the Uniform Plumbing Code base standards.
What do you do before temperatures drop below freezing? The following are some basic winterization/weatherization steps one can take to prevent an expensive and stressful plumbing emergency.
1. Caulk around pipes where they enter the house.
2. Close all foundation vents. Open foundation vents are probably the biggest cause of frozen or split water lines and pipe bursts. Cut wood or styrofoam blocks to fit vent openings, then slide them into the vents. Styrofoam is available at hardware stores or from insulation suppliers. Open the vents again in the spring to prevent dry rot.
Protect outside pipes and faucets. Most houses have water shut off and drainage valves that you can use to drain all of the water from your water supply system. Secondly, water supply pipes that serve outside fixtures like hose spigots should have a shut off valve that turns only those selected fixtures off so you can continue to use your plumbing system through the freezing season. In some homes, the outside faucet has a separate shut-off in the basement, garage or under sink cabinet. If you have a separate valve for outside faucets, shut it off. Then go outside and turn on all the faucets to drain water in the lines. Leave the outside faucets on while you go back and check your outside shut-off valve for a small brass plug or cap on the valve. Turn this plug far enough that water drains from the valve. Then, tighten the plug back and turn off all the outside faucets. Again, you should understand how the water system works before you open and close these valves.
Wrap outside faucets or hose bibs. Do this if you don’t have a separate valve to turn off outside faucets. Also remember to disconnect garden hoses. Use newspaper or rags covered with plastic, fiberglass or molded foam insulating covers to wrap the faucet. Molded foam insulating covers are available at plumbing and hardware stores. Drain in-ground sprinkler systems. Check manufacturer’s instructions for the best way to do this.
Insulate pipes in unheated areas such as the crawl space, attic, garage or basement. Use insulating tape or molded pipe sleeve and wrap it over the entire length of exposed pipe. Cover all valves, pipe-fittings, etc. with insulating tape or fiberglass. Check your hardware store for supplies.
Shut off and drain your water system if you are leaving home for several days. Turn off the water heater before draining the system. Leaving your furnace on a low setting while you’re gone helps, but may not prevent freezing. Turn off the main shut-off valve, then go through the house and turn on all faucets, sinks, tubs, showers, etc., and flush the toilets. Go back to the valve and remove the plug so that it can drain completely. Follow-up by re-tightening the valve and turning off the open faucets.
Open cupboard doors in the kitchen and bathrooms. Water lines supplying the kitchen or bathrooms are frequently located in outside walls. Any air leaks in siding or insulation can cause these pipes to freeze during winter. Leaving the cupboard doors open when the temperature is below freezing allows pipes behind the cupboards to get more heat.
Let the water run if the temperature dips below freezing. A stream slightly smaller than a pencil width should be sufficient. Faucets farthest from the street should be the ones left running. Using cold water will save on your gas or electric bill.
We’re just going over the basics here. The main point that we would like to make about preparing your house to avoid winter plumbing pipe problems is to have an informed family.