Protecting Your House & Plumbing in Winter

Protecting Your House & Plumbing in Winter

Your house is like a big toddler.  It needs guidance from the experienced adult: you.  You can’t just leave it in the middle of winter and expect for everything to be alright when you return.  These preparations are simple; you just need to think about them to protect your investment in your house and in its plumbing.  Protecting your house and its plumbing in winter just takes a few quick steps.  Rand Soellner Architect wants his clients to be able to prepare for winter and protect their houses and the plumbing.  Step one: if you are not familiar with Winterizing houses, obtain the services of a licensed contractor experienced with this special service and have him or her supervise or perform all of the following…

Protecting Your House & Plumbing in Winter

protecting your house and plumbing in winterTHERMOSTATS: first, what Not to do: do Not turn your thermostats off or to such a low level that you will have frost inside your house.  That will eventually melt and saturate the wall and floor and ceiling finish materials which is sure to grow mold.  What to do: turn your thermostats down to perhaps 60 degrees F.  In reality, the low limit switches in your AHUs (Air Handling Units) will turn on when the thermometer in the thermostat reaches about 58 degrees.  The high limit switch in the AHUs will probably turn off the heat source and related distribution fans when the temperature at the thermostat reaches about 62 degrees.  Why is this important?  Because there are water pipes running through your walls, ceilings and floors.  These pipes are heated typically by the water itself, if it is running through them, and/or from the heat inside your house.  If you turn down your heat to an extremely low level or turn it off, you will have a Cold Structure that will not be able to provide any heat to the piping in structural spaces, thereby allowing the pipes to freeze.

DEHUMIDIFIERS: many people think that just because they are not present to smell any moldy odors that they can turn off their dehumidifiers when they leave.  That is Not a correct assumption.  If you have dehumidifiers in your crawlspace or other location in your house that would otherwise have dampness you really need to keep your dehumidifiers on.  They do not use much electricity and can prevent the building materials and furnishings in these area from growing a green, fuzzy coat.  That is not an exaggeration.  Rand Soellner Architect’s wife is a real estate broker in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  Some of her clients turn off their dehumidifiers to “save” when they leave.  Invariably, their houses smell like an 1820 root cellar.  You must keep your dehumidifiers on at all times.  Dehumidifiers have a humidistat setting that you can typically adjust to whatever level of dehumidification you desire.  The Soellner’s set theirs at 35% to 40%.

PLUMBING “WINTERIZATION”: if you are going to be gone for more than a few days, like weeks or months and you  expect that there may be freezing temperatures during that time period, you would do well to engage a residential licensed contractor who is experienced in “Winterizing” houses.  This mainly involves draining all of the water from your house.  First, turn off your hot water heaters.  When all the water is gone from them the elements can burn out or other damage can occur if they are left on.  Have your local gas company advise you about turning off a gas-heated device and have them come to your house to do this.  Now, to drain your house piping of water, typically, the exterior valve at the street is turned off first.  This valve box and all the other subsurface valve boxes should be filled with bundles of plastic bags (like what people at your grocery store bag your food purchases inside for you to carry to your car).  This advice is actually given by Utilities, Inc., a large water and sewer provider serving communities in the SouthEastern to MidCentral United States.  The bundled plastic bags serve to insulate the valve and pipe.  Even though the water inside this piping is very cold, it still retains some heat and the bags serve to insulate them from the even harsher temperatures above the valveboxes.

Now, drain all of the water out of your house, by first connecting hoses to the lowest point of water piping in your residence, which often will be the bottom of your hot water heaters in your crawlspace.  Have the hose drain ends lead to the outside before opening their drain valve.  Okay, open these low point drain valves, then proceed around your house and open up all the other water valves in all the kitchens and bathrooms and anywhere else.  Flush all the toilets, several times.  Your Winterization contractor should look for other possible low points in your piping, which can also occur in horizontal runs of piping that is inadequately supported, causing low spots.  When all of the water has been drained from your house, make sure that all of the water valves inside your house and crawlspace are turned back off.  Otherwise you will get a big surprise when you turn on the Main when you return.  Your contractor may also feel it is prudent to pour in non-freezing fluids into toilets, which is based on his or her experience in your climate.

GARAGE: First of all, Close all the garage doors and windows completely.  If you do not have weatherstripping around your garage doors (all the garage doors of all types and sizes), then take this precaution.  Stop infiltration (infiltration is the entrance of unwanted exterior air blowing into your house from outside).  You do Not want to leave your garage interior to freeze.  More than likely there are some water pipes flowing through the structure of this area and you do not want them to freeze.  Your plumber may have installed a special shutoff valve in your garage that allows you to turn off water to any exterior hose bibbs on the exterior garage wall.  You should have turned this shut off valve off, then opened the hose bibb connected to it.  Also, provide at least a small heater in your garage set to a low temperature and if you know where water piping is in your garage walls, ceilings and other areas, you might want to direct the heater in that direction.  Even if you believe you have drained all the water from your house, there still could be some low spots with water remaining in them and you do not want these to freeze.  Why?  Because water expands 10% of its volume when it freezes.  This is why if water is contained within a fixed volume, like a closed pipe, the pipe is doomed.  The freezing water inside will become rock hard as it expands, and can easily split and break even metal piping.

EXTERIOR HOSE BIBBS: not many people do this.  They really should.  First, remove all of your exterior hoses that are connected to your exterior hose bibbs.  If you do not remove the hose from the hose bibb, water can be backed up in the hose bibb, causing it to freeze.  If you have Frost Proof hose bibbs, that is great; they will hopefully be safe, however, even these will need to have any hoses connected to them removed.  If you are not sure if your hose bibbs are frost proof, you may want to insulate them with something like flexible rubber or plastic hose bibb protectors that you may be able to find at Lowes or Home Depot, or use what you have as scrap material in your house, if you know that harsh weather is on the way, or if you will be gone.  Drain the hose bibbs of all water before doing this, if you are winterizing your house for an extended period.  Oh, if you’d like to have your hoses continue to function, drain them as well, after you disconnect them.  The best way to do this is to pull them out straight, then pick up one end, and keeping a continuous high point, walk along the length of the hose, constantly draining the water out of it.  Otherwise, water left inside the hose can expand, freeze and rupture the walls of the hose, ruining it.  If you do not remove hoses from even frost free hose bibbs, the faucet can be ruptured inside the wall, and you will not even know it, until you turn on the faucet in warm weather and water starts spurting inside your wall, causing much more water damage than if you took these simple precautions.

IF YOU ARE NOT GOING TO WINTERIZE: if you are not going to drain all the water out of your house and turn off your main water valve, then consider this precaution: on each floor of your house, turn on a faucet just enough to allow it to slowly drip.  Perhaps even do this at all fixtures in your house, if you will be leaving for several days and you know that the pipes in your house are susceptible to freezing.  The idea is to keep the water flowing (even just a little) so that it does not have the chance to freeze.  Open under cabinet doors where you know plumbing lies behind it so that the warm air in your house can better warm the walls where the piping is located.  If you expose anything not suitable for infants and small children, take necessary precautions.

IF YOU HAVE ACCESS TO YOUR PLUMBING: Rand Soellner Architect specifies that ALL plumbing piping be insulated with synthetic insulation.  The reason is to protect the piping from freezing and from losing heat (in the case of hot water piping) and from have moisture condense on them (in the case of cold water piping) to prevent mold from growing.  If you see any plumbing distribution piping without insulation, then call a plumber and pay him or her to insulate the piping with a quality pipe insulation like Armaflex.  This will also help avoid freezing.   If you have the ability to do so, install additional insulation between the outside surfaces of areas in walls and ceilings and your plumbing piping.  Never allow water bearing pipe to be installed in areas where cold weather can directly contact it.

DOORS & WINDOWS: Doors and windows are often responsible for a great deal of infiltration in a house.  Infiltration is the unwanted and uncontrolled entrance of exterior air entering your house.  Wet your fingers and run them around the perimeter of your exterior doors.  If you feel a cold chill coming onto your fingers from the exterior side of the door gap, then you have infiltration.  You want to stop the infiltration.  First: have a tradesman that is experienced at installing and repairing doors make sure that your door is square and level and not warping and seated properly into the door frame.  Second: if you don’t have proper weatherstripping firmly contacting your door when you close it, provide and/or adjust the weatherstripping until you do.  Third: if you still experience some remaining infiltration, especially with warping wood doors, you may need to have your handyman install another thin strip of wood trim around the top and side of your door to further block the door gap.  Fourth: make sure you have a proper threshold and that your door bottom is level and completely horizontal and engaging weatherstripping along the exterior bottom door face.  Rand Soellner has actually seen exterior doors in some houses that have a bottom gap through which you can see the outside!  Obviously, any air outside can easily slide under such an improper opening and into your house, along with a host of creepy-crawlies.  Fifth: if you have a non-insulated or non-solid core door, you may want to consider replacing your exterior doors with a better quality new entrance.

Windows can have a tremendous amount of infiltration and you should think about replacing older windows that leak a lot of air into and out of your home.  Newer windows are also double pane with Low-E coatings that help dampen heat transfer from inside to outside and vice-versa.  You want windows that have low infiltration levels and low heat transfer frames.  If you don’t want to spend money to upgrade them now, you may want to consider temporary measures like sealants and other insulation to make them perform better.  Such measure may render the windows inoperable, however, depending on how you have installed the fixes.

For additional information on how your house can be designed to deal with the winter and other seasons and conditions, please click here —> Contact Rand Soellner ArchitectHome Architects website

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