The miserable polar weather that recently struck the core of the U.S. left millions of homeowners and renters without power, drinking water, food and other necessities. Frozen and burst water pipes in houses and businesses were as plentiful as flies at a summer cookout.
I was a guest on a news program in Chicago a couple of weeks ago to try to help folks in the Midwest who were suffering damage to their homes from the extreme cold. My takeaway from that appearance, as well as an avalanche of incoming help requests on my website, is that many people are not doing the simple things that protect their homes when severe weather events happen.
I don’t know where the blame lies for this basic home-maintenance breakdown, nor do I care. All I want to do now is get folks up to speed so they know what to do to prevent burst water lines in their homes the next time the temperature drops.
Water expands in volume by 9% when it freezes. This isn’t a big deal if it freezes in an open bucket where the extra volume can rise up into empty space. But your water lines are different: They’re a closed system, much like a can of fruit juice. Put one of those in your freezer, and the next day it’s going to be split wide open — just like your burst copper or galvanized-iron water lines.
There are water lines that can handle this expansion. PEX plastic water lines, for example, can freeze and not burst. If you’re going to build a new home or undertake a remodel, I recommend using this type of line.
If you don’t have PEX water lines and find yourself in an extreme weather situation with multiple days of subfreezing temperatures, here’s what you need to do.
Start by cleaning your bathtub and filling it to the brim with clean water. Do the same with as many buckets, bowls and pots as you own. You’ll use this for drinking, cooking, flushing toilets and so forth during the crisis.
Next, locate your main water-shutoff valve and turn it off. It’s almost always where the water line enters your home. It could be in your basement, crawl space or a closet.
(Prior to this, I recommend testing the valve to make sure it actually shuts off the water. If you haven’t used the valve before, you might find that it doesn’t turn, or it might not reopen after your shut it off. Pro tip: Don’t do this test hours before you’re expecting 20 guests for Thanksgiving dinner, or when plumbers might be hard to come by.)
Once the water is tuned off, it means that if the line does burst, you won’t have to worry about thousands of gallons of water flowing across your floors. However, you’ve now created a hidden time bomb, so you need to get as much water out of the lines as possible.
Find the lowest sink in your house and fully turn on both the hot and cold valves. Then go through the entire house and flush every toilet and open up every valve, including tubs, showers and outside hose faucets. You’ll see lots of water flowing out of the sink where you opened up the first valve. Gravity is pulling the water out of the lines and replacing it with air. Do not close the valves on any faucet — leave them open until the crisis has passed and it’s safe to open your main water line again.
If you feel it’s going to get bitter cold in your home, you may need to drain your water heater as well. There should be a valve on the bottom of the tank for this purpose.
Tim Carter has worked as a home-improvement professional for more than 30 years. To submit a question or to learn more, visit AsktheBuilder.com.