Winter Safeguards: Frozen pipes and other winter problems your tenants need to know about

Posted By: Bruce Davis Sr. Maintenance ,

It’s February! Ready to plant your garden, get some sun, throw open a window? Remember, February is still the middle of winter. We’ve already seen some extreme temperatures and snow this year – and in some recent Februarys as well. I thought it made sense to revisit some things that can usually help you and your tenants deal with frigid winter temperatures.

 A ‘cold snap’ in the Pacific NW is when it gets below freezing not just at night, but during the day too. When it gets below freezing at night, we usually do okay in the Puget Sound. But when it gets below freezing day and night, especially for several days in a row, our plumbing and heating systems are pushed beyond what they are used to, and a little preventative thought and action can save lots of money in damages.

 Heating Systems

Carbon Monoxide Detectors

More than 4 adults per week die in the U.S. from ‘fixed’ heating devices failing or working poorly. More than 13 people per week die from all the different kinds of portable sources of Carbon Monoxide (see my blog, The Silent Killer). It is a very real and present problem in our homes and businesses. 

If you own or manage a heating system that uses a fossil fuel, (natural gas, propane, kerosene space heaters, wood stoves, fireplaces, pellet stoves etc.) be sure you have Carbon Monoxide detectors in place that are in good working order. The instructions on the CO equipment packages recommend a multitude of detectors be installed, we recommend CO detectors be placed in at least:

  • The area/room of the heating equipment/device.
  • All sleeping areas.
  • The garage.
  • One per floor in a central area for that floor.

Furnace Filters

Make sure your furnace filter is clean. Weather that is windy and/or below freezing day and night will tax it badly enough; don’t make it worse. Every winter we see several units a month that fail due to a clogged furnace filter. 

Turning down the Thermostat

Vacant units and/or unoccupied rooms should not have their heat turned way down. A few degrees down is okay, but we recommend that during very cold weather you do not let the temperature swing from high to low by more than 5 or 6 degrees. It takes lots of energy to heat up a cold house (65 degrees or lower) when it’s below freezing outside, and pipes freeze when they are insulated from the warmth in the buildings. Keep the heat on and open any cabinets under sinks that are on outside walls.

 

Plumbing Systems

Main Water Shut-offs

Make sure that you/your tenants know where the main water shut-off is and make sure you/they know how to shut it off; so if you get a frozen pipe you can shut off all the water. If any pipes do happen to freeze, get the Main shut-off turned off, and do not leave the water on to a home that has any frozen pipes, because if and when the pipes thaw, they most likely will be broken where they were frozen and they can flood everything. We have often seen people have one or two pipes freeze, and just ignore it until things warm up thinking that all will be well; it may not be and there is no way to predict what will or will not break. There is an urban legend that the new PEX (Cross-linked polyethylene) piping will not break when it’s been frozen, but that is not always true. We have seen PEX piping fail when frozen and the resulting damage was extensive. 

Hoses and Hose-bibs

Make sure all outside hoses are disconnected, so water will drain away from the hose faucet (hose-bib) and not freeze it. Newer homes use the ‘frost-free’ style, so if your hose is disconnected it can’t freeze. If your house is over 15-years old, you may need to cover the hose faucet with a Styrofoam cover to keep it from freezing. 

Utility Rooms and Garages

Non-heated rooms and areas (like a garage or back porch) that have plumbing in them (water heaters, laundry) must be kept above freezing, or the plumbing needs to be heat-taped and insulated; not only insulated. Just insulating pipes alone will not always protect the pipes from freezing. They need heat-tape too. 

And remember, wet insulation will not insulate. So if the pipes are exposed to wind and weather, wrap them up to keep the insulated pipes dry too. 

Good quality heat-lamps can work well for situations like washing machines in garages, but extreme care must be taken to apply them safely in all aspects to protect from fire hazards. 

Crawl Spaces

Any crawl space and attic vents that might allow cold, sub-freezing winds to blow onto the pipes should be temporarily blocked off during the freeze. However, do not completely close off all ventilation to the areas; just the vents that will let wind blow onto pipes and freeze them. It’s good to heat-tape and insulate those pipes too. 

Running Water

If you have no other options on a section of pipe or part of a system that cannot be accessed (like in an outside wall or attic): Let a little water trickle on a faucet that is on an outside wall if you know it might freeze, and you can’t protect the pipes. ‘A little water’ on a faucet is a small, tiny stream of water that flows smooth and doesn’t break into drips. On a toilet, you can set the flapper to cause the water to run every few minutes. 

Moving water won’t freeze as easily, but do not leave running water unattended; a clogged drain will cause flood damage too! 

And again, never, EVER leave a home overnight or unattended during the day that has any frozen pipes in it, without shutting off the main water shut-off.

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Bruce Davis, Sr. Licensed Journeyman Plumber, Licensed Electrician, HVAC/R Electrical Administrator, HVAC/R Certified WA State C.E.U. Instructor 

Bruce Sr. is President of Day & Nite Plumbing & Heating, a 67-year-old family owned and operated plumbing and heating business in Lynnwood, Washington. Bruce can be contacted at: Bruce@dayandnite.net, Day and Nite Plumbing and Heating Inc. 16614 13th Ave. W. Lynnwood, WA 98037 800-972-7000