Sunday, March 1, 2015

The Anatomy of a Bad Decision (& How To Thaw Frozen Pipes)

About a week ago, I woke up on a Saturday morning to a homeowner's nightmare: I turned on the bathroom faucet and nothing happened. No water came out of the faucet. Zip, zilch, nada. The cold water pipe in our one and only bathroom had frozen overnight. 

We love our historic home, but modern plumbing is one of the things we appreciate. 

The frozen pipe itself wasn't the real issue, although it's definitely inconvenient not to have running water in the bathroom. No, the true danger is that those pipes often burst, leading to severe amounts of damage if the water supply isn't shut off immediately. Even in the best case scenario, a burst pipe needs to be replaced. This is never a project that a homeowner wants to take on, and certainly not when you're already committed to several other large projects. 

The worst part of this situation was that the frozen pipe was entirely avoidable, were it not for a single bad decision. During especially cold weather, we usually let our faucets drip overnight or anytime we aren't going to be using water for an extended period of time. But this particular night, I made the decision not to drip the bathroom faucet. In hindsight, it was the wrong call. 

In order to save others from making a similar bad decision, I've shared the chain of events here. Fortunately, we were able to thaw the pipe without it bursting, thanks to some good advice from my father-in-law and brother-in-law. Thank goodness for knowledgeable family members. I can't remember the last time I felt so grateful.  Now that you know we didn't suffer hardship as a result of my bad decision, go ahead and laugh or roll your eyes at my stupidity. If you're just interested in how we got the pipes to thaw, feel free to skip to the end.  

1. Misinformation
While listening to the radio on Friday morning, I remembered hearing that we were getting a brief reprieve from the cold temperatures. The weekend would be positively balmy in comparison to the subzero temperatures we had been experiencing for weeks on end. So on Friday night, I convinced myself that it wasn't cold enough to drip the faucets. If the temperatures were only expected to be slightly below freezing, we didn't need to let an interior faucet drip, right? Except for one key piece of info: the temps weren't expected to rise until Sunday. On Friday night/Saturday morning,the temperature dropped down to 1 degree. If I had checked the temperature before going to bed, I would have known this. But I didn't. 

2. Faulty Logic    
I'm originally from SoCal, a place of perpetual drought.  As someone who was raised to be conscious of water usage, I feel uneasy and even guilty when we let our faucets drip. In the same way that some parents tell their children, "Eat your vegetables. There are starving children in China" I was telling myself "Stop wasting water. There is a drought in California." But here's the problem: there is no way for us to send our water to poor, drought-ridden California. And even if there were a way to share our water with Californians, we certainly can't do so if the darn pipes are frozen.

And then, there was a little voice in my head that said, "Well, even if it does get cold tonight, what's the harm in not dripping the faucet for just one night? One time won't hurt. Besides, last week we forgot to drip the bathroom faucet on a cold night.  Nothing catastrophic happened then, so we'll be fine tonight." This is what I told myself at 2:00 AM. Just once is fine. As though frozen pipes were some sort of vice that needs to be enjoyed in moderation, like red wine or junk food or shopping sprees. Not so.

Earlier in the week, on President's Day, I took my car to the mechanic for a routine oil change. I figured I'd be be there for an hour, then spend the afternoon doing something fun around the house. Turns out that my car had a severe suspension issue that needed to be corrected asap. The mechanic basically told me that I was one pothole away from ending up in a ditch...which was terrifying, considering that I drive on lots of narrow, winding country roads filled with potholes. I went ahead with the repair and arranged a rental car so I could drive to work the next day. Tuesday morning brought a nasty ice storm, and a harrowing commute on an untreated road while driving an unfamiliar car. I got to and from work without incident and retrieved my repaired car. But it was a hefty repair cost, and we're starting to realize that my 13-year-old vehicle may need to be replaced soon. We knew this would have to happen sooner or later, but we were really hoping for a few more years. 

To make matters worse, my husband and I had a misunderstanding later that week about some of the work that's about to be done on our house. We have two chimneys and both are in bad shape. The rear chimney will be completely rebuilt and the front/side chimney will be repointed. Both chimneys have roofing tar rather than proper flashing. When we repair the chimneys, we're also planning to install proper flashing. We solicited estimates a few months ago and know that the repair is going to be expensive. So expensive that we could buy a new car, in cash, if we didn't do this repair. It makes my present car situation all the more frustrating. Anyway, my husband has been communicating primarily with the contractors and I've been communicating primarily with the town construction/code officials. My husband asked the roofing contractor for a quote to reflash a single chimney, figuring that with all our upcoming expenditures, it's only imperative to fix the flashing on the chimney that's being demolished and rebuilt. I assumed we'd be reflashing both chimneys at the same time, for the sake of efficiency, so that's what I wrote on the permit application and the application to the historic commission (we're in a historic district, so all exterior changes must be approved by a preservation commission). Now, I've signed papers attesting that we're reflashing both chimneys when the estimate was only for one. It's easy enough to ask the roofer to reflash the second chimney, but it means this project will be getting even pricier. Lesson learned: my husband and I both need to communicate better with each other, and look more closely at the documents that the other person is submitting. This is a mistake we'll try hard not to repeat. 

On top of that, work has been particularly busy and stressful. And other improvements around the house have not been going as planned. By the end of the week, I was exhausted. I was physically tired, mentally frustrated, and emotionally spent. The last thing I wanted to think about was "do I need to drip the faucets tonight?"    

4. Distraction
After such a crummy week, I relaxed by snuggling into bed and engrossing myself in J.K. Rowling's The Casual Vacancy. My husband took care of the faucets in the basement and the kitchen, then went to bed. I told him I would take care of the bathroom faucet. But that's not what I did. The Wall Street Journal calls this book a "positively propulsive" propulsive that, before I knew it, it was 2:00 in the morning and I was not at all inclined to drag myself out of bed to drip the faucet.   

For all the reasons above, I decided to turn off the light and go to bed without dripping the faucet.  As they claim in How I Met Your Mother, "Nothing good ever happens after 2 AM."  So true. We awoke on Saturday morning to a frozen pipe and a feeling of dread, fearing the worst.  

How We Thawed a Frozen Pipe*:
As I mentioned, we were extraordinarily lucky because our pipe didn't burst. As soon as we woke up, we opened the cold water tap to relieve any built up pressure. And then we waited, performing a type of pipe watch.  Every 15-20 minutes, I would go up to our bathroom (it's on the second floor) to see if there had been any progress. At the same time, my husband would head to the basement to look for signs of cracking on the cold water pipe.  The whole time, he was ready to shut off the main water supply at the first sign of leaking. In the meantime, we checked online for tips on thawing frozen pipes and came across lots of creative ideas (hair dryer, space heater, etc). Unfortunately, none of those ideas would work for us because our frozen pipe was behind a plaster wall. Once it got to be a reasonable hour, my husband called his dad and his brother. My husband's parents had a frozen pipe last winter that they were able to thaw without incident, so we valued their advice. And my brother-in-law worked for about a year as an apprentice plumber. He's familiar with the plumbing in our house, including the age, condition, and location of the pipes. I can't overstate how lucky we were to have their input. They both advised running the bathroom's hot water tap for about 10 minutes in the hopes that the ambient heat would help to thaw the adjacent cold water pipe. It worked -- after about 7-10 minutes, the cold water started flowing again. We slowly turned off the hot water tap, then let the cold water continue running for about 10 minutes. In this time, we also flushed the toilet and let the bathtub faucet run, since neither of those were operational when the pipe was frozen.

It's now been about a week, and to the best of our knowledge, the pipe did not crack or leak. It's possible that the pipe was compromised or weakened when it froze, so we're going to continue keeping an eye on it for signs of leaking.  And we'll be more diligent about dripping the faucets whenever there is a cold spell.  As much as I hate the thought of using all that extra water, it's not a waste if it prevents major damage to our home.
Disclaimer: Before trying to thaw pipes yourself, we recommend consulting a professional plumber who is familiar with your house and your plumbing. If the pipes do burst, it's just a matter of moments before major damage can occur. We were lucky enough to have my brother-in-law on standby, in case anything went awry. 
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  1. So glad there wasn't any damage. What a relief!

  2. Thanks for the post and great tips..even I also think that hard work is the most important aspect of getting success.. st. charles bathroom remodels