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To Spring or Bust: Protecting Your Pipes From the Cold

As the temperatures drop and the snow piles up, we tend to start thinking about all the snow-related things that we need to protect ourselves from, such as pipes freezing and bursting. Unfortunately that is about three months too late. A couple in the UK learned that the hard way when their pipes burst and they were stuck melting and sterilizing snow for 6 days, waiting for workers from the water system to fix the burst pipes and bring them more water.

All this highlights the need to be off grid as much as possible, and to have your own backup plan in place. Storing water is another essential component, but that is another story. For now, let’s look at what you can do to make sure your pipes make it to spring intact.

An Ounce of Prevention
Perhaps the most important thing you can do before any disaster is to prepare so that it doesn’t become a disaster in the first place. Put these items on your to-do list so that you are not stuck with a costly clean-up from water damage caused by broken pipes and the resulting water soaking your house.

Insulate the pipes. This may seem like a no-brainer, but you may be surprised. Make sure that the maximum available insulation is on all the pipes in your house. But if you can’t do it all right now, remember that not all pipes are created equal. Identify the plumbing that is most likely to freeze (outdoors, attic spaces, exterior walls, etc.) and insulate those first.
Insulate the house. If you lose your hear source in your home, your pipes are still at risk no matter how well insulated they are. You can mitigate this risk by creating a home that is well-insulated top to bottom. Look especially for cracks to fill in, drafty areas to remedy, and exterior walls that feel cold when you put your hand on them. Insulating these areas will keep the house as warm as possible for as long as possible in the event of a major storm. And of course, this also has the bonus of cutting down on heating bills and protecting you from a vast array of other potential problems.
Back-up power source. Even if you have propane or natural gas, your house may use electricity to pump that heat throughout the house. A bad storm can knock out power lines and make it even harder to repair as maintenance vehicles struggle their way through the ice and snow. A back up power generator is so important for so many things. If you haven’t already, get one. Just do it.
Know what your insurance covers. The fine print stating that water damage from burst pipes is not an area that’s covered by your insurance isn’t something you want to discover after the fact. Make sure you know what is and is not covered before disaster strikes, and how to file a claim. It is certainly preferable to avoid the whole mess, but just in case, that is what insurance is for. And if you are a renter, don’t just assume the landlord will cover it. Have renter’s insurance that will cover your belongings if something ever does happen since the landlord’s policy will probably only cover the house itself.
Don’t assume. Even in southern climates, a good freeze can put pipes at risk if they are not protected. In fact, in especially severe weather, this area of the country may be even more at risk since there are less likely to be protections for the pipes (such as all pipes being contained indoors and properly insulated).

Emergency Measures
Let’s say it is the middle of winter, you have not taken any preventative steps, and a big storm hits. There are still things that you can do to avoid frozen pipes – or at least thaw them before they burst.

Water drip. One of the single best ways to keep your pipes from freezing in a pinch is to turn on the water. Remember that hot water is only hot as long as it is in the water heater, so make sure to turn on both the hot and cold water in every at-risk faucet. It does not need to be a lot of water. A steady trickle will do.
Hair dryer. For pipes that are more at risk than others, or ones that have already frozen but not burst, using a hair dryer to warm or thaw the pipes is a great do-it-yourself solution. Of course being able to use this one is dependent on two things: can you get to the pipes, and do you have electricity or a battery-operated hair dryer.
Steam. If you have a gas stove, you should be able to light the burners even in a power outage. Some gas stoves will just light up while others may need to be turned on and lit with a match. In either case, heat on your stove top can give you steam. Fill as many pots as will fit on top of the stove with water and let them boil away. This can serve as a way to heat the house in general, or rotate out the steaming pots and put them under your sink or near other plumbing to provide direct heat.
Diversionary tactics. When every degree of heat matters, make sure not to waste it. Divert available heat to rooms with plumbing by closing doors to bedrooms and other rooms that do not have pipes running through or into them. Also, open cabinet doors so that the heat that is in the house can make it up around the pipes.

In It For The Long Haul
Cold weather is just a fact of life in many parts of the world. So are occasional power outages and heat loss. But what if the power outage is more than just a routine event? What if TEOTWAWKI means you will not be getting more fuel for your furnace any time soon?

Back up heat source. A backup power source is only one piece of a true off-grid plan. Equally important is to have a backup heat source. A wood stove, fireplace, or other source of heat can work wonders. But also consider more modern solutions such as geothermal or passive solar heat. While these may take more up- front investment and a little planning, they will be well worth it when you need them.
Water storage. Food storage is important. But how will you cook that food, drink, or be able to wash anything if you don’t have water? Be sure to have a water storage plan in place right away!
Stop the problem before it starts. If things are really bad, no amount of preparing after-the-fact will help. And if you have city water, in a major disaster, access to that water may be meaningless sooner rather than later anyway. If worse comes to worse, make sure that you at a minimum avoid the water damage from burst pipes by winterizing them. Turn off the main water valve and then turn on all the faucets and flush all the toilets to drain all the water out of the lines. If you are in it for the long haul, you may need to also drain your water heater. If and when you go back to turn the water on, turn the faucets off first, then turn the main valve back on.

A Note About Safety
Always stay as safe as possible. The last thing you need is an injury to add to your challenges.

● Never use electrical appliances in standing water. You could be electrocuted.
● Know where your shut-off valve is and how to use it. For that matter, make sure everyone in the house knows where it is, and where the valves are for the water heater and any other plumbing.
● Don’t use an open flame to thaw pipes. This might seem like a good idea, but you risk adding fire damage to water damage on your insurance claim. Also be careful with anything that you just set up and leave (such as a heat lamp) to ensure there is nothing flammable nearby that may be heated up a bit too much.
● Using the stove as a heat source. Almost always this is a really bad idea. If you have a gas oven, it can release carbon monoxide into the air and poison everyone in the house. If you want to use your stove, try the steam method above rather than just turning it on with the oven door open.

Staying safe, warm, and dry is a major priority in the winter. Take the time to take the steps needed ahead of time, as well as following up with emergency precautions as needed. It will be well worth the effort if you avoid the thousands of dollars to repair flood damage to your house!

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