Thursday, February 19, 2015

No Water from the Well it Could be Frozen Pipes

my well in the snow
I live in the Rural Crescent in Northern Virginia, a lovely place with moderate four season weather. Though we have snow, it usually doesn’t stay on the ground too long because it is rare to have more than a week of freezing weather. This winter I watched in wonder as my brothers sent me pictures of how high the snow is in Boston. My older brother is several inches more than six feet tall and the last picture he sent, the snow was above his head.

We bought our home in Virginia about 8 years ago when we retired. Unfortunately, because of the usually mild winters, our house was built with a Jack and Jill bathroom partially above the garage. The year we bought the house I insulated the heck out the garage and the dormer above it, replaced the garage door with an insulated door, and wrapped the pipes in foam. However on Saturday night while my husband and I were enjoying a pot of goulash, fresh baked bread (thanks Deborah for your bread recipe) and a great bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon a winter storm blew this way with temperatures dropping into the single digits and a wind of 50 miles an hour. With the wind chill, I am told it “felt like” -14 degrees. In the morning there was nothing coming out of the sink and tub in that Jack and Jill bathroom. The pipes in one of the sinks and tub in the Jack and Jill froze overnight. If on a very cold day you turn on a faucet and either get nothing or just a trickle comes out, suspect a frozen pipe. If your well supply line or the water main is not frozen, you may have water in part of the house.

The likely pipes to freeze are against exterior walls of the home, or are exposed to the cold, like outdoor hose bibs, and water supply pipes in unheated interior areas like basements and crawl spaces, attics, garages, or kitchen cabinets. Pipes that run against exterior walls that have little or no insulation are also subject to freezing. In sub-zero weather wells with separate well houses can freeze. Keeping the temperature in a well house above freezing will prevent this. Sometime in the middle of the night as the wind howled, I thought about that bathroom, discarding my first thought of letting the water drip to keep the pipes flowing. Letting the water run can work, but can also create other problems. Though if you are on city water and sewer then a low flow can keep the pipes from freezing, it can overwhelm a septic system or worse a dribble into the septic could have frozen. Drain pipes are not insulated and can freeze.

When I got up I checked the kitchen, bathrooms and laundry sink and all but the Jack and Jill bathroom were working fine. I made sure that the toilets could flush and thought about my options and consulted with my friend Ron Jones from Chantilly Plumbing while I had coffee. The well supply line runs under the garage slab. At that corner of the house where the well supply line connects to the pressure tank the basement is more than 8 feet below ground and the well line enters the basement mid wall-several feet below ground and significantly below the frost line here. The main water supply to the house was fine, only a small section of piping was frozen.

I spend a lot of time and effort conserving energy so it was fairly difficult for me to do what I had to do next. I pumped up the heat in the house to 70 degrees from 65. I opened the cabinet under the sink in the Jack and Jill, and went down to the cellar to get the two old ceramic heating cubes we had ($39 but great). I put one cube in the garage and the second one upstairs facing the sink. I opened the faucet a touch in the sink and tub. I needed to get the pipes warm enough for the ice to melt. The house has plastic piping that is considerably more tolerant of freezing than copper pipes. There is a real shot that a plastic pipe can freeze without bursting if all the connections and elbows are sound.
The little heater that saved the day in my garage. Yes, I finished my garage.

However, the only way you will know if the pipe has burst (other than ripping out the ceiling) is to defrost the pipe and run the water and look for the leak. Water expands when it freezes applying force in all directions, but damage done by the ice occurs typically at elbows and joints where the force is constrained. Some plumbers believe that toilet valves and pressure tanks (used in homes with private wells) can allow a plumbing system to absorb the increased pressure and reduce the likelihood of a burst pipe. The open faucets in the Jack and Jill bathroom were intended to offer another source of relief of pressure as the pipes defrosted and allow the water to flow as the pipe defrosted.

I did not run the water during the coldest part of the night before. While running water may prevent the water supply pipes from freezing, in the coldest weather the slowly running water might cause the drain pipe to the septic system to freeze and block the flow or even burst. I would much rather deal with a frozen possibly burst pipe in the garage of fresh water from the well than a burst septic pipe or a backed up septic system from a flooded tank. Burst supply pipe- much nicer to clean up. So, to make sure that the drain line to my septic tank was clear, I ran the hot water a while in the working bathroom and kitchen. Then to flush the line and not totally waste water I put up a load of laundry in hot water.
My septic tanks in the snow
Okay, what next. I needed to wait. Patience. It was late Sunday afternoon by this time ( yeah, yeah, yeah we stayed up too late Saturday night drinking that fabulous bottle of wine), the wind was still whipping around at 30 miles an hour and the temperature never rose above the mid-teens. So Sunday turned to Monday. The wind died down the thermometer we put in the garage was climbing into the forties. Finally, I heard it -water flowing. Lucky me it was the sink and tub and not coming out of the ceiling. I took a bath in the Jack and Jill and then checked the ceiling of the garage-nothing. Yeah, lucky me.

I was lucky this time, but repeatedly freezing and thawing a plastic pipe can cause it to stress fracture. So I need a new and improved plan for freezing weather. The obvious answer is the next cold front (due in today) I turn on the heating cube in the garage open the cabinet below the sink and run the extra heater overnight. From now on when the weather is forecast for the single digits overnight that is the plan. For those of you with separate well houses that are far more likely to freeze overnight and no longer have access to the 100 watt bulb that kept the old below grade well house warm enough during  New England winters, there are Thermocubes, heating tape and heating pads.

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