Beware of frigid temperatures: keep pipes heated, insulated

By: Joshua Gordon | C&G Newspapers | Published February 12, 2014

METRO DETROIT — When David Greylen, owner of WaterWork Plumbing in Ferndale, made a service call to a home in the Palmer Woods community in Detroit this winter, he wasn’t expecting the mess he found.

While frozen water pipes are part of the job every winter, Greylen said the extremely cold temperatures this year, which have dipped below 0 degrees numerous times, have made the situation more dire for all households.

“I personally had this job in Palmer Woods where a line broke in the middle of the night, and I came in and it sounded like a thunderstorm was going off,” Greylen said. “We had to shut the water off, and then there was so much water everywhere, the electrical went out and I was walking around with my flashlight in the attic. The owner had 13 copper lines break, and it took us almost two days to find all the leaks.”

The cold temperatures this winter have made it especially tough on homes with pipes installed on outside walls or in an attic or crawl space. Greylen said pipes with sustained exposure to frigid winds would freeze if the water was not moving.

“Some of the bigger problems are with the pipes installed on outside walls or in crawl spaces, because they are not well-insulated,” he said. “Basically, the wind is blowing straight on them, and any pipe that has a current of air going at it, enough of that will freeze it.”

As far as early detection goes, Greylen said it is very hard to know if and when pipes could freeze. Most people don’t find out until they go to turn on their water and nothing comes out.

If a pipe does freeze but hasn’t burst yet, there are a few things Greylen can do to thaw the water and get it moving again.

“The first thing we do, we have a machine that is basically a car battery with clamps, and you try to find a spot where you have water and somewhere you don’t, and it sends a current and tries to warm that pipe to get it going,” he said. “Unfortunately, as we go away from galvanized and copper pipes and use plastic pipes, you can’t create a current with this machine. In that case, I have been stuck with using a blow dryer on the pipes or using a heating pad.”

There are ways to protect pipes and, hopefully, stop them from freezing, said Ed Popso, owner of Lakeview Heating, Plumbing and Electrical.

While there are products like heated electrical tape that can be wrapped around pipes, the most effective methods of keeping the pipes warmer is adding insulation or providing supplemental heat to areas in need.

“There have been a lot of mobile homes where the crawl space underneath doesn’t have a lot of insulation, and we are finding that a lot of mobile homes have frozen pipes, so added insulation can help there,” Popso said. “If you have a forced air system, you can add a separate duct to a direct area that may be affected by cold temperatures to get supplemental heat. Or you can use some electric space heaters, but you have to use caution as to not put it by anything combustible.”

Every job is different, but Popso said added insulation or supplemental heat could range from a few hundred dollars to a thousand dollars for the job.

Another alternative to help keep the pipes from freezing is to let faucets drip during cold spells.

“A lot of drain lines are freezing up, too, and if you know we may have a possibility of cold temperatures or your home has had a problem with frozen pipes in the past, you can have your water trickle out of the faucet enough to have a slow, steady stream,” Popso said. “Water won’t freeze as long as it is moving.”

A new problem Greylen has encountered in recent years has involved outdoor spigots. If people leave their hoses connected to their spigots, it can cause a bigger problem throughout the entire house.

“One of the biggest problems we are seeing is hoses attached to the spigot outside; the water in the hose freezes and the ice travels up, and then the ice has nowhere to go,” he said. “When that happens, the water comes spraying into the house and walls and especially into the basement. It’s best to take hoses off the spigot for the winter.”

If pipes do burst, it requires someone like Greylen to go in and find the burst pipe and replace it. In a situation like this, Greylen said he usually charges $250 an hour, but most jobs can be completed in an hour.

When pipes burst, the damage caused by the water in the walls and house should be covered by homeowners insurance, said Russ Vallee, insurance agent at Russ Vallee State Farm. However, homeowners insurance is unlikely to cover the repairs.

“Every claim is different, but in most situations, insurance will cover the damage caused by the burst pipe, but not cover the repair,” Vallee said. “If you had a leaky roof, the insurance would pay for water damage to the house, but not to fix the roof, so this is similar. If someone is doing the normal day-to-day temperature control, at least the damage caused by the burst pipes would be covered.”

Being in the plumbing business has Greylen seeing frozen pipes every winter, but this year’s record snowfall in the area and cold temperatures have made this a year to remember.

“I have probably seen more frozen pipes than I have ever seen this year,” he said. “We had that polar vortex, and it was like a hurricane went off, plumbing-wise. The phone has rang and rang, and I have started to tell people no, because I can’t get to everyone.

“The rest of my career, I will never forget the winter of 2014. I have never seen anything like it.”