Monday, January 10, 2011

At least that's over

Thus endeth one of the less awesome days of my life.

This morning I realized, as the water pressure in my shower trickled down to a sad lukewarm dribble, that the pipes had frozen. I immediately began a campaign of concerted Googling and sulking and complaining to G via email. Neither of us had thought even once about leaving the taps dripping no matter how cold it got. Apartment living instincts have done us wrong.

A little thought (and sticking my head in the garage) led me to believe that the heat tape on the pipes in the garage had failed. The water in our house comes from the well in the backyard, under the ground to the garage, then up into the big scary blue well pressure tank. It comes back out of the pressure tank, goes through an inline filter of dubious quality, splits into hot and cold pipes, and heads into the house in the laundry room. A huge tangle of copper in the laundry room runs through the (malfunctioning and disused) water softener thingie, into the hot water, and away into the rest of the house.

Plumbing is not one of my strong points, but logic is. It's cold in the house - it was 55 in the hall when I got up - but not cold enough for the pipes to freeze. The crawlspace is well insulated, so I doubted it was cold enough for the pipes to freeze under there. The garage is not so well insulated and it was well below freezing in there. The pipes from the well tank to the house are all thoroughly wrapped in various kinds of pipe insulation, and there was a heat tape under the insulation. I bundled up and headed out to the garage and checked the power strip the tape was plugged in to - the radio came on, therefore the outlet was good, therefore the heat tape had failed me.

I retreated back to the den and tried to decide if the hot water heater or the well tank was going to explode, and also how to turn them off. In the Great Hole Digging Adventure I'd learned how to turn off the water (well pump has its own circuit) but what about the water heater? I am only vaguely aware of how those things work, and one time on Mythbusters they blew one through a two-story house, so I'm a little nervous around them. The owner's manual for the hot water heater had been lovingly placed in our new lockable fire safe, along with all of our important documents, but no amount of key-turning and handle-pushing was opening the damn thing. Things were shaping up so well!

I snuck back to the laundry room, got a good look at the WH, then ran back to the den and googled up the owner's manual. It said there was a switch. I snuck back in the laundry room and looked closely - nope, no switch. Back to google, where I realized that gas water heaters have switches. Electric water heaters don't have switches; they're just straight-wired in to the power. I trekked outside and stared at the panel for a while, then took a wild stab in the dark and flipped the breaker marked "WH."

Ok, time to thaw stuff. I locked the dog in the bedroom (so she wouldn't die in the imminent pressure tank explosion), cranked the house heat up to 70, and left the door from the laundry room to the garage open. I didn't feel like corralling the cats so I counted on their extra cat senses to warn them of danger. I zipped off to the awesome local hardware store. Halfway there, I had to pull over to let a fire truck roar by in the other direction. Then another. Then I saw the smoke behind me, from my subdivision. I immediately realized that the hot water heater HAD skyrocketed through the roof like a home-science space shuttle and the house was on fire and the dog was trapped in the bedroom.

Deep breathing. If the house is on fire the nice firemen won't let you go screaming in to rescue your dog, and they will look for the dog, and the cats will bolt as soon as the firemen come in. If the house is not on fire, you still need to deal with the pipes. It'll still be on fire or not on fire after you go to True Value. I comforted myself and drove away from Schroedinger's House and went shopping.

I bought a cheap space heater and a new hot tape and headed home. As always the wise old men of True Value calmed me down. (I didn't actually tell them I thought my house had exploded. Just asked about installing the hot tape.) On the way home I saw the fire. I am not pleased that my neighbors one block down and a half block over had a house fire, but I was incredibly relieved that my own house hadn't burned up.

I decided that I should thaw the pipes gradually, then install new hot tape and reinsulate them. I plugged in the space heater and let it run for a couple of hours. Eventually, when I went out to make sure I wasn't burning up the garage, I noticed a plug of ice had fallen out of the well tank drain tap and that it was dripping. Yay!

I ripped off the old insulation and started unwinding the hot tape. Yes, it did fail. It failed epically.

It was melted apart like that in about 10 places. I don't know what to say. Everything in this house that wasn't inspected by the pre-purchase home inspector has turned out to be broken or was mis-installed, so I'm not at all sure why we blithely assumed the hot tape would work, but we sure did.

I got most of the old insulation and tape off, then carefully wrapped the pipe with the new stuff. The manual for the new tape only says "wrap pipes with fiberglass insulation on top of hot tape" so I was not sure if I should put the foam rubber insulation back on - I've got some new foam insulation, but god forbid I melt another hot tape. I'll get some always-delightful fiberglass insulation next time I go to town.

Finally, things are looking up! I headed out and flipped on the well pump and water heater breakers. Well, the well at least. The water heater one wouldn't flip. It wasn't like it was tripping and clicking back off, it just wouldn't stay to the left at all. Back in the house to froth at the mouth to G some more. He offhandledly told me to call an electrician or something. I had a quiet little American woman meltdown about that. All my women readers will know exactly what I'm talking about.

There are certain circumstances where women are on vastly unequal ground to men. Usually it's buying or repairing cars, but dealing with repairmen is another one. There's a lot of knowledge inequality, a desperation on the part of the buyer/homeowner, and all the cultural baggage of being a woman, and it's incredibly stressful and the result is that you almost always feel like you're getting shafted. G said "It's probably just a worn out circuit breaker," but if some dude came out to my house and did something I don't understand to diagnose it and proclaimed to me that I need a new water heater, I have no choice but to believe him. And write a check for thousands of dollars. And know I got had yet again.

I've talked to a lot of guys about this type of thing, and I'm not saying they're immune to being bullied - but they get bullied into big purchases in a totally different way. It's one of the reasons I'm so fanatical to learn everything I can about everything - I can hold my own in a lot of discussions now. If I had to talk to a contractor about installing hardwood, I'm confident I wouldn't get ripped off (well, no more than an average male homeowner would.) Just... not plumbing, and not electrical. No strengths there yet.

So I had a little existential crisis, then I got up, got dressed, and went back outside. I stopped on my way to feed and poked halfheartedly at the circuit breaker - and it stayed on. I blinked at it for a while, then went to feed. I came back in, fed the dog and cats, and offhandedly turned on the hot water like it wasn't a big deal at all. OMG IT WORKED! I have hot and cold running water again!

I checked the crawlspace, and there's no obvious leaks. And G told me the secret combination of key-turning and handle-pushing to open the fire safe. :)


  1. It's always something with homeownership!

  2. You never fail to impress me! I'm fully confident that I could NOT have solved this problem. And you summed it up so well about women and repairmen. Jason just DOES NOT GET IT why I hate dealing with repairmen.

  3. Ahh, yeah, heat tape... such a joy. My heat tape was bad on my first trailer house, and I laid under there with a torch learning to sweat solder in -20 deg. That sucked.

    I decided I hate heat tape, and whatever effort is involved in burying pipe when the weather is nice is well worth it when it's cold.


  4. i've never heard of heat tape.

    i am totally impressed that you worked that out.

    we are beginning to discover why the previous homeowner accepted our offer so quickly. there are very important things that he neglected to do. for instance, our furnace is on its last breath and spewing water out onto the floor at a rate of 2 liters per 12 hours. (germany heats with water radiators.) this same furnace also heats the water for showering and i'm starting to really miss the warm showers i had the last 3 weeks in america. replacement cost: 5K euros.

    our septic pump was another 5K euro expense. i wonder what will happen next.


  5. Bite your tongues, all y'all, or I'll tell you what's next: the *(&^#$^&# well pump, that's what. $5000 that thing cost me to replace!!!

    Meanwhile, leave the hot AND cold water running slightly when the temps drop below freezing to keep your pipes more mobile. It's not an absolute preventative, but it slows the freezing process.

  6. Thanks, yall :)

    Ron, what would you do as a permanent solution for the pipes in the garage? I guess I could insulate the garage better, but then I have even more square footage to heat!

    lytha - YES! Duh, this house was on the market for 7 years, they did the absolute minimum to keep it presentable. No wonder everything's dying.

    Aarene - betrayed by apartment dwelling :( When I was a kid OF COURSE we left the taps open. Then I moved into years of apartment buildings and forgot. And hush your mouth about the w*** p***. It's FINE. It was INSPECTED.

  7. Fun story to read but not fun to live thru, I'm sure. Welcome te fun part of home ownership (not!) We had our pipes freeze at the well. THAT was a treat!

  8. Good job, Funder, in dealing with one of the worst side-effects of frigid weather! And it seems you caught it before any pipes burst--a major accomplishment.

    What about building a little, super-insulated box around the water system? Then you only have to add heat to the box, not the whole garage. The way we had it "tucked in" at our house in Spokane, all we needed was a 100 watt light bulb going in the box to keep things warm! (It wasn't even a heat bulb.) One side was on hinges for access when we needed it.

  9. Oooh ES that's brilliant! Here's what the garage looks like - the broken solar water heater is gone, but you can see that the tank would be really easy to box in. Yay!

  10. It looks like all of the plumbing is more or less grouped together. Also, that the wall it is up against is the exterior wall, with conditioned space right behind it?

    In that case, I'd frame around all the plumbing, insulating it, and then knock holes in the drywall/insulation between the garage and house. I don't know if you are subject to codes or not, but boxing in all that plumbing so it is on the inside of your conditioned space would sure be a lot less to worry about.

    Wherever the well plumbing comes in from, I'd dig it down and have it come up in the crawl space. Then build an insulated box around it so it too is heated by the house heat and the earth.

    Yeah, it's all a lot of work, but in the end you don't have to worry about heat tapes going bad or power outages. I don't regret digging up and burying our well plumbing one bit now that it's over with.


  11. That's quite an adventure and told in such an epic style.

    The heat tape in my last barn managed to melt the polypropylene water pipes causing quite a mess and nearly electrocuting us all.

    You could box in plumbing and fill the space with foam beads.

    Good luck!

  12. EvenSong beat me to it. That's the exact way we have our pipes in the well house insulated.

    We have a water line buried from the well house to my office and it freezes at least once a year. We keep the faucet dripping but cannot let the water just go down the drain as that creates a glacier in the pipes that is very difficult and time consuming to thaw. Upside is that my critters get lots of water bucketed to them daily.

    The easiest way to thaw frozen pipes is with a welder. Something about water having all the electrons heading the same direction and ice electrons going every which way. Anyway, the welding leads are left out and all I have to do is clamp them to the pipes in two places and flip a switch. An hour later the pipes are thawed.

  13. Hahah, AKPG's comment reminds me of a frozen drain in my childhood... My parents' friend lived in a Civil War era farmhouse. Think newspaper for insulation. It was brutally cold in normal winters, so when we had a subzero cold snap, he and his daughter came to stay with us for a couple days. Of course they left the water dripping when they left. Two days later when they went back, the water was still dripping - but the drain had frozen, the sink had overflowed with ice, and there was a frozen lake in the kitchen.

    Very cool about welding thawing pipes. I never would've guessed.


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