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The Season to Guard Against Burst Water Pipes

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Bill Primavera
Bill Primavera

By Bill Primavera

 Since I now live in a condo in a large building, I thought that I no longer had to worry about the prospect of water pipes freezing and bursting, but, unfortunately, the sprinkler pipes in the attic did freeze and burst during last week’s frigid weather causing water damage in the unit next door to mine.  And the units below that one suffered water damage as well.

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, buyer clients, 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, so she couldn’t understand what went wrong. The engineer looked around and found that, outside, 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, according to Dave Goldberg, now retired from Goldberg Plumbing & Heating, but whose son is still serving Westchester and Putnam counties. “One of the most common causes of burst pipes is when people forget to detach their hoses for the winter. It should always be done by mid-October,” he said.

“But there are many reasons pipes can burst,” he continued. “It can be a mere draft through a tiny crack in a wall, and if it is cold enough outside, the wind chill factor can cause a pipe to freeze, and it can be anywhere in the house, even over the living room.

Goldberg cited the popular use of wood and gas-burning stoves as another cause of burst pipes. “They give you a false sense of warmth,” he said. “It can be 70 degrees inside, but that heat may not get to the outside walls where the water pipes are located.”

As a safeguard, Goldberg recommends that non-toxic anti-freeze be added to the heating system so that if the power goes off, the water won’t freeze.  “It’s like putting anti-freeze in a car,” he 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 suggests 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, he said, is to keep water running from both the hot and cold taps where the pipes are against an outside wall.  I’m well aware of this technique because, when I lived in an antique single-family home, my wife always cautioned me on frigid nights to keep the water dripping in the mudroom half-bath which was exposed on two sides by outside walls. “Remember to keep the water dripping,” she always said, and I always responded back, “I know, I know, you already told me,” but then, I would get myself into trouble by turning the faucet off anyway, just by force of habit.

With the weather currently colder than any wintry spell I can remember, keep in mind that using a little extra water by the drip method, especially for pipes on outside walls, is a safe investment to protect against burst pipes.

While Bill Primavera has enjoyed careers as a journalist and publicist, he is now a Realtor® associated with William Raveis Real Estate, specializing in upper Westchester and Putnam Counties.  To engage the services of The Home Guru to market your home for sale, call (914) 522-2076.


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