Bad Weather Checklist

A Plumbing Disaster Prevention Checklist

The week of November 22nd, 2010 was a rough one here on Vashon. As the cold weather and wind blew in from the north we experienced temperatures reaching as low as 14 degrees Fahrenheit with power outages in some cases lasting from Monday through Thursday, Thanksgiving Day. This wasn’t the first bad storm to hit the island and since it won’t be the last we’ve decided to post this quick primer containing what we hope will be some useful tips on what to do before you have to call your plumber.

1. This island is a mix of differing types of residences. There are mobile homes, Victorian farmhouses, brick and concrete ramblers; the newly constructed; the sustainably designed. It’s in your best interest to know what you have. Do your water lines run through the crawlspace under your house? Through your attic? Have a look sometime. How do you access those spaces? Are they exposed to the cold? What is and what is not insulated?

2. Pipe insulation is usually not enough to prevent freezing pipes. All insulation can do is slow the latent heat in the water from migrating out. It doesn’t stop the process. Electrical heat wrap will actually warm the piping however when the power goes out it’s useless.

3. Where is your main water supply shut off valve? Remember; when the water inside your pipes freezes it can expand and crack the pipe however...the pipes will not noticeably 'burst' until it warms up, usually a day or two after the big freeze. When this happens you will need to know where the main water shut off is. If you don’t know where it is ask a neighbor or friend to help you or ask a professional when they come by for a routine service. Once you know where it is label it clearly so that you or anyone staying at your house can quickly identify it if trouble starts.

4. Do you get your water from a well or from a utility?

5. If it’s a well then find out what the valves in your well house do. Label them. Do you have a well house or are the pressure tank and controls located inside your home, garage or crawlspace?

6. Is there an electrical disconnect or breaker for your well? You can shut off your well (and water) that way. However there will usually be pressurized water in the lines even after you shut the power off because of the pressure tank (that big blue metal tank that you sometimes wonder about). The pressure tank has a diaphragm inside it that will keep the pressure constant for several minutes (what seems like an eternity during a flood). You have to wait but the pressure will subside. This is as it should be. Without this tank your well pump would go on and off every time you operated a faucet.

7. When you get your water from a well and the power goes out then a generator is about the only way to keep your water flowing. Consider installing a natural gas or propane generator rather than a gasoline powered generator. Gasoline can be dangerous when spilled onto a hot generator. You also have to manually refill a gasoline generator.

8. It is difficult for water to freeze when it’s flowing. Open a hot and cold tap and let it flow during a freeze. This alone could save you lots of heartache and expense.

9. Avoid leaving the house when a tap is flowing. Keep an eye on it. If a washcloth slips off the side of the tub and stops the drain, for instance, you might fill that tub quickly enough for it to overflow onto the floor. We’ve seen it happen.

10. Do you get your water from a utility? Good news. You don’t need a generator to keep the water flowing.

11. Have your utility show you where your water meter is and how to shut it off. Is it a shared meter? Better find out before you interrupt your neighbor’s shower.

12. Know where your electrical panel is. Again, if you can’t locate it on your own find someone to help you or ask your electrician. This is often important to know during a leak because of course water and electricity are a very dangerous combination but also because when a pipe bursts and your electric water heater drains out the electrical elements inside will immediately burn out if they are still on.

13. Don’t trust the labeling in your electrical panel unless a qualified electrician does the labeling for you. Labeling often changes as renovations occur, as repairs are made or when a home owner moves in or out. We never trust what a panel says and we always put a meter on the circuit we're working with.

14. Do you have natural gas or propane? Where is the main shut off for either?

15. Do you have a boiler? Is it or any of its associated piping exposed to the cold? When the power goes out these too can freeze and that’s no fun at all…and it’s an especially expensive repair.

16. Where is the switch that shuts off your boiler? There should be one in the boiler room and you need to know where it is.

17. Is there a backflow preventor on your boiler fill assembly? In other words, when a pipe bursts in your plumbing system and drains the water out, will the water from your boiler system drain out as well? This could mean an expensive repair and if the proper controls are not in place to begin with, a potentially dangerous situation. We're happy to explain and label your boiler room for you.

18. One last word….Insulation, Insulation Insulation. Okay we know we said earlier that insulation doesn’t necessarily stop your pipes from freezing however, the longer your home retains heat the less likely your pipes will freeze. You will also conserve energy. Insulation is the first step usually in any home energy upgrade. Next are your windows. Are they double paned? Where are you losing the most heat?

You can determine all of this and more by getting an energy audit from a qualified contractor. We recommend Greg Kruze of Potential Energy, Inc. (listed under 'Recommended Contractors' on this site).