December 2005

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             A few overnight temperatures in the teens have convinced us that Indian summer is over, and it’s time to shift into winter-think. In winter, we make a few changes to the circulation through the water system, and you need to give some thought to your own plumbing. The aim is the same: avoiding frozen pipes.

             H2O is a handy substance because its solid phase is less dense than its liquid phase. Therefore, a cup of water makes more than a cup of ice. We don’t know if there are other materials with this characteristic, but we are glad water has it. Imagine if we lived in a different universe, where water became more dense as it froze. A lake in such a universe would gradually fill up with ice sinking to the bottom. But we live in our own universe, with special rules that make ice float so people can skate on it, while keeping the rest of the lake liquid so fish can swim in it. Good for the fish, and good for us too.

             But, like most good things, such as, for example, cookies, there is a down side. Cookies are normally regarded as good things. However, when you put cookies into people, they tend to swell up. Ice is a little like that. When it forms inside pipes, it tries to swell up and occupy more space than the water did. Some pipes are stretchy, like some people, and will just swell up. Others pipes are more rigid, like some other people, and will split open under the influence of ice, or in the case of rigid people, under the influence of cookies.

             An occasional victim of this effect (forget about exploding people for now) is the homeowner who returns from vacation to find the house ravaged by a broken water pipe, perhaps in an upstairs bathroom, which brought down the ceiling and made a swimming pool of the basement. It doesn’t take a hurricane to wreck your house with water. One little half-inch pipe can do it.

             To prevent such grief, remember that there are only two kinds of water pipes that will not freeze: 1. Empty pipes. 2. Warm pipes. Of the two, empty pipes are more reliable. If you are going to leave your house vacant during the winter, empty the pipes. This usually requires more than opening a drain valve and assuming the water will find its way out. Plumbers who “winterize” a home will blow air through the water lines, put antifreeze into the sewer traps, and systematically make sure your house is safe from freezing up.

             “We’re going to leave the heat on,” is a commonly heard reason not to go to the trouble of a professional winterizing job. This would seem to satisfy condition 2 (warm pipes). But, is your heating system totally reliable? Are you sure that pipes in crawl spaces, garages, or outside walls are going to stay above freezing? Heat tapes are an often-applied measure to keep pipes warm. They depend on a constant supply of electric power, and if installed incorrectly, can fail or even catch fire.

             A common trick to keep pipes warm is to keep the water moving through them. This doesn’t sound like it makes sense. Where’s the heat come from? It comes from the earth. The main water lines are buried below frost level, in a “warmer” part of the ground. It doesn’t take much flow- a little more than a drip (please, not a gusher) will usually protect the pipe the water is actually flowing through.

             Water meters can freeze if the lid is left off, or if there is not enough insulating dirt around the top of the pit. Please check your meter pit to make sure the lid is on. If it gets covered with snow, that’s good, because it insulates the meter and reduces the chance of freezing. If you need to open your meter pit during the winter, be sure to close it right away, and put the snow back over it.

             This is the last newsletter for 2005. Please enjoy your holidays, and don’t forget about the Annual Stockholders Meeting coming up December 13. There will be lots of cookies to test your flexibility/rigidity.


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