Plumbers Prepare for Pipe Freezing Season
As the year comes to an end, plumbers are preparing for the longest, coldest two months of the year.Enlarge photo
Shaun Stanley/Durango Herald
Trevor Krueger, owner of custom home builders Krueger Group, uses insulation in new homes with higher R-values than required under the current building code because it can better protect plumbing pipes from freezing. He allows extra space between the exterior wall and pipes to allow for more insulation.
January and February are widely considered in the plumbing industry to be the prime pipe-freezing months, a plight that can create huge problems and rack up costly repair bills.
“We have that period where it never gets above 20 degrees during the day,” said Gary Roseberry of Roseberry Plumbing & Heating.
“The problem is that not enough people understand their homes. If your thermostat is at 50 degrees, that’s not necessarily the temperature that’s reaching your pipes.”
Run water, keep cabinet doors open, crank the thermostat and don’t neglect the heat tape is the usual advice, but those in the plumbing industry see enough repeated mistakes each year to know the tips bear repeating.
“Some of the dumb mistakes I’ve seen every year: ‘Oh, it’s hot outside and sunny,’ so they leave the garage door open,” Roseberry said. “But if you leave the cabinet doors open for air circulation and turn the heat up, a lot of the times, plumbing will thaw itself out and they’re fine.”
For owners of older homes dealing with the insulation they’ve got, Roseberry said the usual tricks are typically effective but not always.
Depending on how long someone leaves the faucet running, the water could freeze the sewer line, he said. Heat tapes, which are heating cables that plug into a socket and then are wrapped around plumbing, can be effective, but homeowners often forget to plug them in come fall – or they neglect to notice the tape no longer works, until the pipes freeze.
And frozen pipe problems aren’t limited to indoors; underground pipes can also freeze.
Master plumber Howard Kuhfal of Master Rooter, who averages about 20 frozen pipe calls a week in January and February, said sewer lines are susceptible to freezing, particularly where the pipe has a flat spot.
If a homeowner’s underground pipes tend to freeze, he advises hiring a plumber who can use a camera to identify the trouble spots underground.
“If the sewer lines are under three feet deep, the water in that belly of the pipe will freeze,” he said. “If you have a problem with a sewer line freezing, and this happens every year, hire a plumber with a camera to come in there and locate the area with the flat spot that freezes.”
Frost depth in La Plata County is about three feet underground, Kuhfal estimated, and it’s deeper in areas such as Vallecito and Purgatory. Water lines in La Plata County, at minimum, should be at least 40 inches deep or deeper, he said.
Local builders working on new homes have the option to take some preemptive measures against pipe freezing, from the types of pipe they use to the amount of insulation.
Kuhfal has been in the business 30 years and advises builders to use cross-link polyethylene (PEX) pipe for plumbing.
“PEX pipe has been around La Plata County for several years,” Kuhfal said. “It freezes, contracts and goes back to its original shape. Copper will swell up and split. Plastic will freeze up and shatter.”
Homebuilders are also adding and improving insulation in newer homes.
Trevor Krueger of Krueger Group, which manages the construction of custom homes, said his company uses simple practices that make all the difference in preventing pipe breaks.
For one, he installs plumbing valves when possible in interior walls, which are better insulated.
“When pipes freeze in older homes, that’s just from not having enough insulation,” Krueger said. Insulation is measured by an R-value, which quantifies a material’s thermal resistance. The higher the R-value, the better the insulation. The R-value standard under the city’s building code is R-19, but Krueger builds starting at R-22. In ceilings, the code is R-28, but he builds at R-45.
Other homebuilders are also using spray foam insulation, which is applied as a liquid, then expands as it turns to a solid and offers a higher R-value per inch. “Those things don’t sound like a big difference, but it definitely is a better insulated wall,” Krueger said.