By Doug Hanna, Principal, S+H Construction, Inc.
As I write this, we have a daytime high temperature of 9 deg F with a 22 mph wind, which makes me very thankful that I am no longer required to be outside swinging a hammer in all kinds of weather.
So far this winter we have experienced a couple of sustained blasts of arctic air. A summer heat wave may be uncomfortable, but these low mid-winter temperatures can actually feel life threatening by comparison. The effect on our bodies can only be relieved by multiple layers of clothing, a warm fire, or by just getting into bed and hibernating for a few days. The effect of these temperatures on our homes can be measured by the increased amount of energy we use to heat our homes, but also, unfortunately for some, by frozen or burst pipes.
Houses that have inadequate or missing areas of insulation are particularly susceptible to freeze-ups. Heat pipes or domestic water pipes that run in or near poorly insulated exterior walls, or run through cold spaces are prime candidates for freezing when the temperature dips towards zero. Sometimes we learn where the weak spots are the hard way. All it takes is a small section of heat pipe to freeze and the boiler will be unable to move hot water through the pipe, causing the pipe to freeze further and more solidly along its length. In our well - intentioned zeal to lower the temperature of our thermostats in order to keep certain areas of our house at low temperature, we may actually be inviting freeze-ups.
Contractors aren't supposed to have this sort of thing happen at their own homes, but unfortunately this is what happened to me the last time we had a cold snap. Thankfully, the pipes froze but did not burst, for which I am thankful. The only downside is that because there was no leak, I couldn't identify the location of the freeze-up. Burst pipes only become evident after the temperature has gone up and the ice melts in the pipe. I was keeping part of the house fairly cold and I believe this led to the freeze-up. I was able however, to identify a number of areas of air infiltration, including a poorly fitted garage door and a few closets with pipe near the exterior wall. If you have closets with pipes running through them, remember to keep the closet doors open during the cold weather.
While I'm not advising that people keep their thermostats in the 70s, keeping them in the mid 60s during a cold snap might be a good idea, especially if the insulation in your house is questionable. This will keep enough heated water flowing through the pipes to prevent a freeze-up. The location of thermostats is also very important to keep homes evenly heated. If a thermostat is too close to a kitchen, for instance, the heat generated from cooking can trick the thermostat into thinking that the house is up to temperature, leaving more remote areas too cold.
So if you are experiencing or have experienced frozen or burst pipes this season, once the anxiety or the cleanup passes, it is a good idea to hire someone to do an assessment of your home, focusing on the amount and quality of insulation in all areas, as well as identifying and remedying vulnerable pipes.
In order to allow you to hibernate without worry next year, be pro-active. Take whatever freeze-up you may have experienced this winter, or any weak areas you've identified, and take action this spring. Better and comprehensive insulation will prevent freezing pipes and also allow you to keep those thermostats down. Winter won't be here forever. As Mom used to say, "This too shall pass."