Plumbers give advice to avoid frozen pipes

With nighttime temperatures plummeting to the mid- or low teens, homeowners are being advised to keep pets inside and take some simple steps to keep pipes from freezing and bursting.

Plumbers, who are reporting a heavy volume of calls for frozen pipes in the last several days, say the simplest preventive measures are to wrap all exposed pipes (especially those under homes or on outside walls) with insulation batting, stuff vent boxes with insulation, unscrew hoses and maybe keep faucets at a slow drip.

How do you know if pipes have frozen? It's when there's no water coming out of the tap, says Walt Vail of Vail Plumbing in Medford. But you may not see the leaking or puddling water until the thaw comes and water starts moving again, he adds.

Many newer homes are installing PEX, or polyethylene cross-linked pipe, which withstands expanding ice and is virtually unbreakable, says Vail. Most calls are to older homes, he notes.

Homeowners also can wrap pipes in "heat tape," which you plug into a regular electrical outlet; it acts like an electric blanket on pipes.

Almost everything shrinks when it cools, but water's molecular structure makes it expand by 9 percent at the freezing point -32 degrees Fahrenheit.

"If it's in the high 20s at night, it's no big deal, but after it drops below 22, you've got to wrap the (exposed) pipes with insulation to keep them from freezing," says Richard Ferguson of Richard's Plumbing in Medford.

"Wrap them with something, even old socks," he says, adding that, in temperatures like these, you also have to make sure hoses are unscrewed from outside "bibs" — otherwise the standing water left in hoses, faucets and lines can freeze. Also, turn off and unhook irrigation systems.

Another vulnerable spot when the mercury edges down to single digits is the water heater in the garage, with its incoming and outgoing pipes, says Darin Chase of Kottke Plumbing in Medford.

You have to insulate the pipes and, if it freezes, "you have to know how to shut off the water to the water heater, as well as how to shut off its electricity (or gas)," says Chase. "The water shutoff valve is on the top right of the water heater. You also have to know how to shut off the water to the house" in case pipes freeze and split.

If you shut off the water to the water heater, you also have to shut off the electricity or it will burn out the elements — a $200-plus repair job, he adds.

You've seen those ventilation blocks around the bottom blockwork of your house, right? Well, those are nice for ventilation, but bad for letting in freezing air and breezes, says John Latham of Latham Plumbing in Ashland, so stuff them with insulation, socks, cardboard or similar material and remember to take it out when things warm up.

Rural homeowners on wells should not only insulate pipes, but leave a light burning in the pumphouse — and keep both hot and cold faucets on a slow drip, says Latham, who had been out on almost a dozen frozen pipe calls Monday and Tuesday.

"I went out on an apartment complex where the laundry room froze and another, a home where all pipes were exposed to the elements," says Latham. "You've gotta get some batting insulation and wrap pipes to keep direct cold off them."

Plumbers report that most frozen pipe repairs take about an hour and cost the regular service call fee of $80 to $120 an hour, with the higher fee for night work.

While the freeze is a major inconvenience to homeowners, it's an economic boon to plumbers, says Ferguson, who notes a two-thirds drop in business from two years ago.

"We've been starving. Everyone (customers) has been holding back on repairs and trying to live with it. But last night, we worked till 10:30," he says. "We're happy for anything we can get."

To keep your vehicle safe from Jack Frost, just have your gas station attendant check the coolant level, says Brandon Anderson of Ashland Auto Repair, and park it in the garage on cold nights.

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