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The constant battle: pipes in the winter

As Minnesotans, we are all too well aware of what liquid does in cold temperatures. Just in case, here’s a crash course. It freezes. It expands. It ruins sidewalks, pop cans, hopes and dreams. It is the crusher of all lives.

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No matter the strength of the container, expanding water can cause pipes to break. Pipes that freeze most frequently are those that are exposed to severe cold, like outdoor hose bibs, swimming pool supply lines, water sprinkler lines, and water supply pipes in unheated interior areas like basements, crawl spaces, attics or garages. Pipes that run against exterior walls that have little or no insulation are also subject to freezing.

During cold weather, it’s important to take preventative action. Keeping garage doors closed if there are water supply lines in the garage is an important key.

When the weather is extremely cold like the current winter we’re experiencing, letting just a trickle of water run through your pipes can help prevent freezing. Allow the cold water to drip from the faucet during these cold snaps.

MidWest Cleaners, a water restoration company in Alexandria, says that the wisest advice they can give the public is to watch the temperature of your house.

“When it’s 40 below outside, keep your house at a comfortable temperature,” said Brenda Krog of MidWest Cleaners. “If you set the temperature at 65 degrees, it will take a lot for the furnace to keep the house warm.” You may incur a higher heating bill by bumping up your thermostat, but you can prevent a much more costly repair job if pipes freeze and burst.

Of course, life happens and we sometimes have to come face to face with a dreaded frozen pipe. There are tricks, however, to thawing these beasts.

If you turn on a faucet and only a trickle (or nothing at all) comes out, suspect a frozen pipe. Likely places for frozen pipes include against exterior walls or where your water service enters your home through the foundation.

Keep the faucet open. As you treat the frozen pipe and the frozen area begins to melt, water will begin to flow through. Running water through the pipe will help melt and erode away ice.

Apply heat to the section of pipe using a hair dryer, a portable space heater, or by wrapping pipes with towels soaked in hot water. Do not use a blowtorch, kerosene or propane heater, charcoal stove, or other open flame device. Of course, always use caution with electrical devices just in case the pipe is broken.

Apply heat until water pressure is restored. If you are unable to locate the frozen area, if the frozen area is not accessible, or if you cannot thaw the pipe, call a licensed plumber.

If a pipe does burst, it won’t take long for the water to start doing damage. If it begins to penetrate walls and flooring, you will need the services of a water restoration company, like MidWest Cleaners, to clean up, dry out and repair the damage.

Depending on the size of the house and the amount of damage, Krog said that the average estimate for clean-ups and repair from broken pipes can be anywhere from $250 to $1,000.

“On an average winter, we usually see about 10 of these situations,” Krog said. “Because of the coldness this year we’ve already dealt with 15.”

Krog said that usually they run into these issues in the spring time. When pipes burst while frozen, the water is still frozen, so they won’t leak. With the spring warm-up, the water begins to thaw, letting the water find the broken pipe areas and creating an indoor waterfall.

If you spot a burst pipe, turn off the main water valve immediately. The valve is usually found near the water meter, which is commonly located in the basement. If you don’t have a basement, check near the water heater. Shut all faucets and then open only the lowest hot and cold faucets in your home. That will drain the water from your home and the burst pipe won’t spray water all over. Then call a plumber to repair the pipe and a water restoration company if you suspect any water damage.

If you do have a pipe that has burst over the winter, there’s some good news when it comes to insurance. You should be covered. Standard homeowner and renter policies do provide coverage for burst pipes. That means your policy should cover the repair of the pipe and the repair to any damaged walls. There may also be some coverage for damaged furniture, rugs and carpet. Be sure to check with your insurance provider to know exactly what coverage you have.

Annie Harman
Annie Harman is a reporter for Echo Press and The Osakis Review. She grew up in Detroit Lakes and graduated from the University of Wisconsin - Eau Claire with a degree in print journalism and history in May 2012. Follow her on Twitter at annieharman
(320) 763-1233