The phone call came in January from the real estate company that sold me my Cape Cod home in 2000. An alert neighbor spotted a frozen stream outside the foundation of my vacation home beneath my living room window and contacted the realtor whose name they remembered from the sign posted at the house when it was on the market. Thank you thoughtful neighbor! But I was 400 miles away in Syracuse where I lived and worked at the time.
In a total panic I called my Cape Cod plumber who prepared me for the worst. A pipe could have burst in the house, flooding the first floor and bursting through the wall to the outdoors, only to freeze once it hit the January air. Can you spell T-E-R-R-O-R?
Luckily my fears were for naught. It turns out my outdoor spigot had been slowly dripping all winter and it built into an impressive frozen mini Niagara Falls. It was an easy fix but I've never looked at pipes and cold weather the same since.
Our friends at House Logic have some tips on how to prevent your pipes from freezing, beginning with the most vulnerable areas:
A frozen garden hose can cause more damage than a busted hose; it can actually burst an interior pipe. When the water in the hose freezes, it expands, increasing pressure throughout the whole plumbing system. As part of your regular seasonal maintenance, garden hoses should be disconnected, drained, and stored before the first hard freeze.
If you don't have frost-proof spigots, close the interior shut-off valve leading to that faucet, open and drain the spigot, and install a faucet insulator. Don’t forget, outdoor kitchens need winterizing, too, to prevent damage.
Exposed Interior Plumbing
Exposed pipes in the basement are rarely in danger of freezing because they are in a heated portion of the home. But plumbing pipes in an unheated area, such as an attic, crawl space, and garage, are at risk of freezing.
Often, inexpensive foam pipe insulation is enough for moderately cold climates. For severe climes, opt for wrapping problem pipes with thermostatically controlled heat tape (from $50 to $200, depending on length), which will turn on at certain minimum temps.
If pipes traveling in exterior walls have frozen in the past (tell-tale signs include water damage, mold, and moisture build-up), it’s probably because of inadequate or improperly installed insulation. It might well be worth the couple hundred dollars it costs to open up the wall and beef up the insulation.
Heading South for the Winter?
For folks leaving their houses for an extended period of time in winter, additional preventative measures must be taken to adequately protect the home from frozen pipes.
Make sure the furnace is set no lower than 55 degrees. If you prefer, you can shut off the main water supply and drain the system by opening all faucets and flushing the toilets.
In extreme situations (vacation home in a bitterly cold climate), Abrams recommends having a plumber come to inspect the system, drain the hot water heater, and perhaps replace the water in traps and drains with nontoxic antifreeze.
One of the first vendors I share with my new homeowners is a reliable plumber, especially when sales occur in the fall and winter. He or she will be your best friend. Go to Angie's List for a growing list of vendors on Cape Cod, or contact me via email, text or phone call for my personal recommendation.