Baby It's Cold Outside

Feb. 25, 2021
I cut my teeth on frozen pipes. I was in the trade only about five months and we got hit with below zero cold. The company I worked for at the time was overwhelmed...

Here in New England we get a lot of cold weather. Not that we have a lock on bitter cold weather. Milwaukee, North Dakota, they both get bitter cold weather. Let’s not forget Alaska. You get used to it. Well, not everyone. Some run for the warmer parts of the country. Whether it’s global warming or just a change in weather patterns, parts of the country are getting really severe weather. Or as we call it in New England, “Wickad Cold.” Texas is the latest state to experience extreme weather. My heart goes out to those people. I’ve been reading about the trouble with plumbing in the homes in Texas. Broken pipes and flooding homes—it’s so sad.

In New England we get out share of cold weather and broken/frozen pipes. Most are located in a protected environment, which eliminates or at least decreases the chances of freezing. We still run across some faulty installation that was either a homeowner doing it themselves, or else a contractor who shouldn’t be running a business.

I cut my teeth on frozen pipes. I was in the trade only about five months and we got hit with below zero cold. The company I worked for at the time was overwhelmed. Not just with no heat calls, but with no water and frozen water mains. Some customers waited days just to have water to the house. We had a couple of portable thawing machines which would handle that frozen pipe. For frozen water mains we hired a guy with a welding machine. He was a nice man with an easy style of conversation. I remember standing around for a few hours waiting for the water main to thaw.

My boss gave me a cardboard box with a torch, solder, flux, san cloth and a handfull of slip couplings. He gave me a handwritten piece of paper with names on it and said, “Call when you’re done with these.” I took my own car and off I went. For most in that situation it’s sink or swim. I swam and learned a lot. Talk about on the job training!  My favorite memory was my boss came onto a job and I had cut a little hole in the wall to repair a pipe. I was having a tough time working in such a small spot. My Boss said, “Give yourself room to work. You can fix a big hole just a well as a small hole.” Great line isn’t it? I still use that expression when we are doing other work and need access to a ceiling or a wall. 

I seem to have a knack for thawing frozen pipes. It’s not just the cold that freezes the piping, it’s the wind. When the weatherman says its five below zero I’m not so worried, but when he says the wind speed is going to be picking up, that’s when I get worried. People put couches  and beds in front of baseboard heat and block the warmth of the room from getting to the piping (especially when they set back the thermostat ten to fifteen degrees at night). The cold wind blows through a crack in the space between the floor and the wall. Or worse they leave window open just a little. BAM you’ve got a frozen pipe.

I think it’s funny when people say it froze a few days ago but it must have just split because it’s pouring water out. Well, no. It froze and split a few days back. It’s just turned warm enough to melt that ice in the pipe. Water expands eleven times its volume when it freezes and everyone thinks it’s the ice that expands and splits the pipe. Actually, tests have been done and it’s the hydraulic pressure of the water being squeezed between two frozen sections of pipe that does it.

Think about it: the water freezes in one spot and two feet away the water freezes in another section of piping. As the ice begins to expand it squeezes a section of water between the two ice sections and the hydraulic pressure builds up in the water and you’ve got a split pipe. Ever notice right where the split is there is a small puddle of water, right where the floor? That’s where the water built up enough pressure to blow out the pipe or fitting. Sometimes the pressure is so high that it pushes a soldered joint right apart without splitting the copper. These days it’s a Pro-Press joint hat blows apart. There’s got to be a lot of pressure built up to blow apart a Pro-Pres fitting.

Another misconception is the frost-proof sill cock. In the spring we get the call that the “new” sill cock is defective. We have to explain how the sill cock works and that if it froze and split or broke the vacuum breaker then “someone” left the hose on it. “No I don’t think that’s what happened.” Here we go again … let me explain how this works...

Freezing cold weather and split pipes is no fun for anyone. I had a friend who ran a large plumbing company and he had a customer say, “Oh you plumbers must love this weather and all the money you make.” My friend answered, “Oh yeah, I love it. I just sold 20 half-inch slip couplings.” Not much profit there. As all of you know, the customer loves us when we are there at ten at night but they don’t like us when the bill comes through. Then things get cold again.

Scott Milne is the owner of Milne Plumbing and Heating. He and his company have been serving the greater Boston area for nearly 30 years. He specializes in high-efficiency heating systems for custom homes.

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