Monday, January 4, 2010

Old Houses and the "Freezing Pipes" Battle

Having spent most of my Holiday weekend helping friends and neighbors with unfreezing pipes I thought it was a good time about how to deal with cold weather issues and how they effect the Historic home owner.


Lets face it Old houses are drafty by nature. When most Old houses were built, energy was cheap and most people lived differently in their homes . The heat source may have been a simple wood stove or a series of wood or coal burning fireplaces. Heat "systems' came about normally after the introduction of water to old homes.


Most homes had a well and bathrooms were in the back yard in Victorian days. In fact, outdoor priveys lasted well into the 1930's in parts of Cincinnati and in rural areas as far into the 1960's.
So the introduction of "Modern plumbing" was an afterthought in most Victorian homes, usually a bedroom or hall closet was converted into a bathroom, and typically homes had only 1 bathroom if they were later in Victorian era and the owners had the financial means to afford the cost of indoor plumbing..


Chances are for most of our homes, bathrooms were an "afterthought" and little if any planning was given to how plumbing should be run or how it was run. Often water lines were placed in exterior walls or lines were run near outside walls where drafts from the outside could freeze pipes.

So what can you do in your battle against old man winter? The first step in any old house should be insulating pipes. Foam pipe insulation comes in many sizes geared to the size of your pipes. It is cheap and one of the easiest "energy improvements you can make. Simple foam insulation can be the difference between a frozen pipe with its big repair bill if it breaks.

You should also insulate your water heater with a insulating blanket. This will reduce your overall energy costs as well.


Cold air infiltration is the biggest enemy of your pipes. It at all possible pipes should never be run in crawl spaces. If they are, you can help protect them by buying the 1 or two inch foam sheet insulation and insulating the chase that the pipes sit in. Take the foam and cut it to fit between the underside of the floor joists and create a 'box". Seal it with tape and make sure the opening to the heated part of the bathroom is open to allow heat to get into the sealed chase you built.


While you are in the crawlspace it is an excellent time to seal and insulate your heat ducts as well.

Gaps in the ductwork can be sealed using a 'ductwork putty/caulk' sold in tubes, it can be applied to the seams where pipes sections come together and will seal those little pinhole gaps where the pipes are joined. Tape the joints using the metal foil heat duct tape made expressly for that purpose . DO NOT use regular duct tape as it is ineffective and the adhesive fails after a few years. The metal foil tape with the "peel off" back is far superior. All ductwork in your crawlspace or basement should be insulated. Improperly sealed ductwork can reduce the efficiency of air delivery by as much as 20-25 percent. It's a cheap and easy fix, can be done over a couple of weekends and you will notice an immediate improvement in your comfort and heat bill.


Drafts are a big enemy of pipes and one of the easiest ways to find them is a 'smoke pen'. A smoke pen can be found at some home improvement store or online. It emits some powder 'smoke' which will show drafts. The key area of infiltration in most old homes is around the sill plate where it meets stone or brick foundation. Unlike new homes which sit on a insulating membrane and are caulked old houses are not, The best way to seal this is with the canned expanding foam insulation. I like to then follow that up with unfaced roll insulation stuffed into the cavity. This helps stop "cold transfer". Pay attention of brick homes to the "pockets' that the floor joists fit in and use expanding foam on any gaps there.

You also need to pay particular attention to any place a line enters the house like cable of phone lines and use the expanding foam to seal around the opening. A critical area is outside spigots which should also be covered in winter with one of those foam boxes. When making repair or updating plumbing. Outside water lines should be replaced with"anti freeze silcocks' which are designed to shut of water back farther from the spigot.



Another overlooked item is a basement heat duct. Even if you do not use your basement as finished space having heat ducts that you can open in extreme weather can raise you basement temperature a few degrees which can be the difference between water filled pipes and ice. I like to locate the duct near where the pipes come in, or near an outside wall where most of the water lines are run. If you have chronic problems with frozen pipes and have an electrical source close by, consider having electrical heat tape applied to the water line.


If you have basement windows be sure the glass inspected yearly and that the glazing is good. For winter it's a good idea to get some 2 inch foam insulation and cut it to the size of your basement window. In winter place this over your window opening on the inside and seal it with tape for the winter and when spring one simply takes it out. If you have "service openings' to your crawlspace be sure to build insulated doors Or use the same foam block technique as the windows.


Tips when planning new plumbing additions or remodel:


Avoid water lines in outside walls if at all possible.


Insulate all water lines. Do not forget in insulate water lines in walls whenever you have to open up an interior wall.


Think about sources of possible air infiltration whenever you are doing major renovations or restorations and SEAL SEAL SEAL!


Make a winter disaster plan. What happens if the power goes off? Homes will retain their heat for several hours so don't panic. If you live in an area that has major power outages consider a backup generator system of an backup heat source like a small propane heater in the basement to keep the basement warm (proper ventilation is the key when operating any propane or kerosene heater).

Many local utilities offer free energy audits and do not forget to keep those receipts for insulation. It may be deductible on state and local taxes.

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