As sub-zero temperatures are blasting the Midwest and as words like “bomb cyclone” and “polar vortex” are being tossed around, this is the time of year that’s hardest on pipes, and the busiest time for Gage County plumbers.
With more sub-zero temperatures on the horizon, here are some tips to prevent pipes from freezing during the cold winter days ahead.
Todd Hydo of Lammel Plumbing in Beatrice said that, with the mild fall and winter temperatures that lingered late into 2017, the sudden, extreme plummet into negative temperatures came as a bit of a shock to both residents and water pipes.
Between Christmas and New Year’s, temperatures dipped down to 20-below in some areas, leading to frozen pipes.
“This year just fell at a really bad time, where we had two holiday weekends and two weekends where we had record lows,” Hydo said. “That was kind of the odd thing this year.”
Frozen pipes can be caused by different factors, Hydo said, including recently-shifted or cracked foundations. Many older houses may have settled in the warmer months, he said, developing cracks where cold, wintry air can get into low places like basements and crawl spaces.
Those low places, Hydo said, are where a house’s plumbing usually sits.
“My best advice is to tell people to go in their basement or crawl spaces when it's a nice, bright sunny day, and if they can see daylight from cracks, they need to fill them, spray foam them, insulate them,” he said. “If cold air is getting in there enough to freeze the pipes, that can't help with your heating bill also.”
Other than filling cracks, pipes with the potential to freeze can be wrapped in insulation or heat tape, though that would only offer a temporary solution, he said.
Roy Lauby of Lauby Plumbing, Heating and Air in Wymore said that letting water run through the pipes is a good idea, but it’s important to remember a scientific quirk about water.
“Hot water usually freezes before the cold,” Lauby said. “You need to leave a steady drip to a slow dribble when it gets down to zero and in that area.”
And, while letting water flow through the pipes is a good way to keep them from freezing, Hydo said that it can be a bit of a double-edged sword when the temperatures get perilously low.
“If you have water slowly dripping down your sewer line, you have a much bigger pipe that's just as cold,” Hydo said. “We actually had that happen here this week a couple of times, where the sewer line actually froze solid. Thawing a sewer line is much, much harder because you have no pressure behind it, plus it's a much larger line.”
When the sewer line freezes, Hydo said, it takes heat, and lots of it, to fix it. Workers may apply heat guns to the pipes and bring in industrial space heaters to try to warm crawl spaces up to 80 or 90 degrees. In one more extreme case this week, Hydo said his team had to pour rock salt into the sewer line to let it eat away at the ice.
Lauby said he’s noticed another problem in which furnaces are dying in the extreme cold. When furnaces are pumping out heat full-blast, that can take a toll on a heater.
For plumbers like Lauby and Hydo and those who work for them, the coldest days of the month are often the most challenging. In the nearly 25 years he’s been in the business, Hydo said this is easily one of the top three busiest seasons he’s had.
Hydo said he hasn’t had a day off in about three weeks, and area plumbers have been working weekends and late night shifts to keep up with demand.
“It's another way we stay busy year-round,” Lauby said. “We worked all day New Year's Day, all day the day before, all day the day before that, all day the day after and ever since. All day Christmas--I worked 14 hours Christmas Day.”
Hydo said he’ll probably get to enjoy the holidays once he’s retired, but until then, this is the busiest time for him.
“Plumbing and the holidays,” Hydo said. “Between plugged sewers and frozen pipes, it's usually a bad season for us.”