Nature's challenges reveal chinks in house's armor


January 22, 1994|By Karol V. Menzie and Randy Johnson

If "when it rains it pours" is the homeowner's watchword in the summer, then "when it freezes, it breaks" just may be the phrase for winter.

In case any of us had forgotten that, the recent cold snap has been a sharp reminder. Part of the problem this year has been the extreme nature of the chill. Pipes that are fine and free-running at 15 degrees might freeze solid at minus 5 degrees. A balky furnace that has chugged along keeping the house just warm when it's 20 degrees outside may not be able to keep up when the temperature drops to 2 and brisk winds drive cold air through every gap.

A friend of ours who lives in a large, developer-planned community south of Baltimore stayed pretty cool when a cold-water pipe under a bathroom sink seemed to be freezing up. He opened the vanity doors and trained a small electric heater on the pipes; in a short time water was running again. But when he spotted ice crystals in the shower stall he became a little unnerved.

Randy advised him to make sure the taps were turned on, so that water, which expands as it freezes, would have someplace to go. If the ice can't expand up or down the pipe, it is likely to crack it. And sometimes you can't tell it's cracked until it thaws and starts to leak. (Never, ever use an open flame to thaw a frozen pipe. Use a hair-dryer or, as our friend did, a portable, oil-filled electric heater.)

In the friend's case, it's possible that a future remedy might be as simple as keeping the vanity doors open, so heat in the room can help keep the pipes warm enough not to freeze up.

It's a principle of good plumbing that water pipes should run through heated spaces. But sometimes that's not possible, or sometimes plumbing is added in a space not anticipated by the original plumber -- a bath in an addition that used to be a porch, for instance.

If your house has such an afterthought space, it might be a good idea to put it out of commission in extra-cold weather. Drain the pipes and turn off the water to the space. If there's no way to isolate the space, a good warmer-weather project might be to add shut-off valves.

If you can't live without the space, plan to add insulation or pipe-heating tapes, to protect plumbing in a future cold snap. If you're planning to renovate that space or adjacent space, be sure plans include removing interior walls and adding more insulation. (Always install insulation so water pipes are on the warm side.)

Solving his frozen-pipe problem didn't resolve the ice-in-the-shower problem for our friend, however. The house sits on a concrete slab, rather than on a foundation/basement, so he can't get to the space below the shower. But the next day he went out to see if there was any sign of trouble in the area outside the bath -- and discovered a couple of loose pieces of aluminum siding. He suspects the house wasn't heavily insulated to begin with, so when it gets a little warmer, he plans to add insulation and tighten the siding. In the meantime, he could cover the area with a sheet of heavy plastic, taping it to the siding.

Annoying as it was, the frozen pipe/air infiltration problems have fairly simple solutions. When Karol woke up to a cold house on what was then the coldest day so far in the year, the problem wasn't so obvious, and the solution wasn't so simple.

The house, built around 1912, has a gas-fired boiler in the basement that heats water for the radiators. An old programmable-type thermostat had lost its program functions before she moved in, but the simple automatic on-off function worked fine.

Or seemed to. The temperature on the thermostat that morning was 52 degrees -- but it was hard to tell because the numbers were so faint.

The first thing she did was to replace the 9-volt battery in the thermostat. It still said 52, but at least it was easy to read. But turning up the setting from the night-time setback of 57 degrees to 64 degrees did no good. The boiler didn't come on. A trip to the basement showed the pilot light was still burning. But the house was getting colder by the minute.

Randy, who was working on another project, answered an emergency call. His first move was to check the circuit breakers to make sure the circuit controlling the boiler-firing mechanism was on. It was. So he took the thermostat apart and reconnected the wires to bypass it. The boiler fired -- which meant part of the problem was that the old thermostat had finally lost its remaining functions.

But the boiler wouldn't stay on. The pilot would light the burner, and then the flames would die down and go out. When Randy checked the gas meter, he discovered that when the flames died down in the boiler, the needle on the lowest gas gauge would slow down and nearly stop.

It looked like part of the problem was outside the house. Randy recalled seeing a local utility crew working on an adjacent street, so he went out to ask them what was going on.

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