By Bill Primavera
Every year just before the holidays, I receive that trusty call from Dave Goldberg, my retired plumber who served my plumbing needs for close to 50 years. He reminds me to advise readers to disconnect their garden hoses from the outdoor spigot. If not, mayhem may follow.
Other than a fire or tornado, the most damaging event a house can suffer is flooding from a burst water pipe. Yet most people have just a sketchy knowledge of how to avoid this potential disaster.
One of my most memorable mishaps with burst pipes involved a young couple who had found the home of their dreams and wanted to close as quickly as possible because the lease on their rental was about to expire. But their dream was dashed, at least temporarily, by a discovery we made when we arrived at the house for the engineering inspection.
We were greeted by an ominous sound of water leaking and discovered in the family room that water was spraying through the seams of the plasterboard walls and half of the ceiling had collapsed. The engineer quickly shut off the water main, but it was too late to prevent the extensive damage to the walls, ceiling, built-in cabinetry and flooring.
As an estate sale, the house was empty but the selling agent had been very careful to monitor the heating system so that the pipes wouldn’t freeze. She couldn’t understand what went wrong. The engineer looked around and found that the garden house had not been disconnected from the outside spigot. He explained that water in the hose had frozen and backed up into the pipe that traveled through the garage, which was unheated, to the family room on the other side of the garage wall, causing the pipes to burst. When the ice melted, the room was flooded.
When water freezes, it has the force of 2,200 pounds of pressure per square inch, Goldberg said.
“One of the most common causes of burst pipes is when people forget to detach their hoses for the winter,” he said. “It should always be done by mid-October.”
There are many reasons why pipes can burst, Goldberg said. There could be a draft through a tiny crack in a wall. If it is cold enough outside, the wind chill factor can cause a pipe to freeze and it can be anywhere in the house.
For snowbirds who leave their houses for warmer climes, Goldberg said even if a house is winterized, it can be done incorrectly.
“When people had summer houses up here and would close them for the winter, it was easier to drain the pipes because the plumbing was designed for that,” he said. “Now, with modern construction, pipes wind around beams and go up and down, and there are many elbows that can trap water. If just a drop of water is left in the elbow and it freezes, the pipe can burst.”
Goldberg said the best way to avoid this problem is to have the pipes blown out with an air compressor.
“Things can go wrong even if a house isn’t abandoned,” he said. “If a family takes a winter vacation, for instance, it’s not enough precaution just to leave the heat on. Suppose there is a power failure or the supply of fuel runs out?”
Goldberg cited the popular use of wood and gas-burning stoves as another cause of burst pipes because it gives a false sense of warmth. It may be 70 degrees inside, but if the heat doesn’t reach the outside walls where the pipes are located, problems may ensue.
As a safeguard, he recommended that nontoxic antifreeze be added to the heating system so that if the power goes off, the water won’t freeze.
“It’s like putting antifreeze in a car,” Goldberg said, “and it should be checked annually to see that it’s still at an effective level.”
For insulating pipes in the basement or crawl space, he suggested using a heating strip that turns on automatically like a thermostat, and then to wrap both the pipe and heating strip with insulation.
Another safeguard in frigid weather is to keep water running, both the hot and cold taps where the pipes are against an outside wall. I’m familiar with this technique because when my wife and I lived in an old house, which was somewhat drafty, we would keep the water dripping in the mudroom half-bath that was exposed on two sides by outside walls.
“Remember to keep the water dripping,” she always said. I’d usually respond, “I know, I know, you already told me.” I would get myself into trouble by turning the faucet off anyway, just by force of habit.
But seeing the damage that a burst pipe can do, I didn’t mind the occasional admonishment.
Bill Primavera, while a publicist and journalist, is also a Realtor® associated with William Raveis Real Estate and Founder of Primavera Public Relations, Inc. (www.PrimaveraPR.com). To engage the services of The Home Guru to market your home for sale, call 914-522-2076.