Maintenance keeps problems from seeping into home


November 14, 1992|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

It may be hard to think of winter as a season of water, but you can be in real trouble if you don't.

Indoor water and outdoor water both are problems. Winter rain and melting snow have to go somewhere -- away from the house -- and quickly. If there are problems with the gutters -- say you put off clearing out the leaves -- you could get trapped water turning to ice and pushing up underneath the roof surface. When the weather warms up, the ice melts and could drip inside.

Water that gets trapped around the foundation -- because the soil isn't graded so water runs away, or because there are depressions from summer plantings, or because leaves have built up -- can find a way through the ground into the basement.

It's especially important to keep the foundation dry in older houses, where it may be made of brick or stone (or even packed earth), rather than modern concrete. Water can find its way through tiny cracks and crevices; if it freezes in the foundation, it may make cracks worse.

Fortunately, there are plenty of solutions. None of them is permanent; only yearly maintenance can keep the problems eternally at bay.

It's no fun to clean out the gutters, especially if you haven't done it lately. Karol's house is surrounded by big, old trees. They're mostly maples, but one is a magnolia (big leaves, big buds) and the biggest is a tulip tree (zillions of leaves, zillions of little buds). Consequently, the gutters make better mulch than a composting bin. They demand regular cleaning -- and gutter guards to keep out some of the debris.

The best gutter guards are metal, shaped in a half-circle, with little clips on one edge that fasten onto the front of the gutter. When it comes time to clean them, you just give them a flip. The rounded shape should encourage leaves to blow off the roof. Some gutter guards are flat and fit inside the gutter; they are easily clogged. (We found the rounded clip-type guards at our local home-improvement emporium for a couple of dollars per 3-foot section.)

When you clean out the gutters, remember to stick a hose in the downspouts and run enough water through to make sure they're not clogged. Then turn off the water at the interior hose bibs, leave the exterior bibs open, and put the hose away.

Winter water problems outdoors can be a real nuisance, but winter water problems indoors -- such as frozen pipes -- can be a disaster.

If you're redoing plumbing in a renovation or rehab, you can position the pipes to minimize freezing problems. Plan fixture placement so water pipes don't have to run through unheated spaces. Be sure when you insulate a wall that the pipes stay on the warm side of the insulation material.

If old pipes run through a room, be sure the space is sealed -- or the pipe is insulated -- to keep drafts from blowing on it.

There are several products that can help pipes fend off winter cold. If you have a water pipe running through an unheated space, such as a crawl space, now is the time to protect it. Insulation "blankets" will protect pipe for a short cold snap; but only heat tapes will keep it warm in a long cold spell. The traditional method of keeping pipes open is to turn the faucet on and let the water run at a slow, steady trickle. It works, to a point, but it's not exactly a conservation technique.

Unfortunately, often the only way you find out a pipe has frozen is when it breaks. If the weather is extremely cold, and you suspect problems with a pipe, keep checking it to make sure water is running. If it freezes, however, there is really only one safe way for homeowners to thaw it: Use a hair dryer. Turn off the water to that pipe and turn on the faucet it runs to, to allow thawing water a way to escape.

If the pipe is badly frozen, it may be a long tedious process to thaw it. In fact, it's probably a matter of luck if you can thaw it out before it breaks. In Maryland, with its quick freeze-thaw cycle, it may take a whole lot of luck. But at least, if you use the hair dryer, you won't set the house on fire.

Next: The issue of home sprinkler systems

Mr. Johnson is construction manager for Neighborhood Housing Services of Baltimore. Ms. Menzie is a home writer for The Sun.

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