Dealing with a Frozen Home

How to remedy cold pipes and buried fire hydrants

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By Justin Broglio

In January of this year, after enjoying a Saturday full of powder turns and blissfully planning many more, I was quickly reminded of the harsh realities of keeping a home functioning while Mother Nature and Old Man Winter do their best to bury us and freeze us out.

As I unloaded the ski gear, my daughter’s voice rang out from the back of the house, “The bathroom faucet isn’t working.” And not a minute later, my wife added that she couldn’t see our nearby fire hydrant anymore, which was probably not good.

These challenges are brought on by the same things we enjoy so much and spend all year looking forward to — cold temperatures and deep snow.

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The dry faucet likely meant we had frozen pipes … again. I knew I could find the fire hydrant easily enough; it would just take a bit of shoveling.

First up, frozen pipes

The best way to prevent frozen pipes is before winter arrives. In October, I should have spent some time under the house adding extra insulation to the pipes near the outer walls, closing any open foundation vents, and listening when my wife reminded me that the back bathroom pipes usually freeze when we get a big winter.

Frozen pipes can be a major problem, especially during the winter months. When water in a pipe freezes, it expands and can cause the pipe to burst. Even the most cautious and well-intentioned homeowner in our region may sooner or later experience a frozen pipe or two.

THE FIRST STEP to thawing frozen pipes is to open cabinet doors and place a space heater nearby to warm the area. Be sure to slowly turn the faucet on and watch for any sink overflow once the water starts flowing again. Photo by Justin Broglio

If this happens to you, don’t panic. A freeze-up at an exposed pipe or under a sink can generally be eliminated by slowly applying heat with a hair dryer or a space heater.

The first step to addressing frozen pipes in your home is to know your plumbing system. If you suspect a pipe has burst or see any visible damage to the plumbing, find your main shut-off valve and turn off the water immediately. If you don’t know where this valve is, you can call your local water utility provider to help locate it. (Pro tip: Place a snow stake next to your water meter so you can easily locate it during the winter months.)

When multiple faucets are not working, or you’re not sure where in the house the frozen pipes are located, it is best to call your local water utility provider first. They can help determine the issue and check your main water supply line and water meter to see if that is part of the problem.

If you can see a burst pipe or any major water damage, it is best to call a licensed professional for help immediately.

With no visible damage or broken pipes, and if you’re certain it’s not the water meter or main supply line, there is no need to shut off the water entirely. You can get started with some basics like warming up the area.

Don’t ever attempt to use a flame or a gas torch when thawing your pipes. Attempting to defrost a line too rapidly with extreme heat could result in a fire, damaged plumbing, or an injury. A little patience is preferable to starting a house fire or damaging the pipes and causing major water damage.

To get our pipes running, first, I slowly turned the faucet back on. That way, I’d be able to see when the water started flowing again.

Second, I opened the bathroom vanity doors and placed a space heater nearby. This allowed warm air to circulate in the bathroom and warm up the frozen pipes.

Courtesy graphic

Then I let the heat do the work.

Next up, fire hydrant

With more than 4,000 fire hydrants in the Lake Tahoe Basin alone, the Adopt-A-Hydrant program encourages residents in Truckee and around Lake Tahoe to join with their neighbors and help clear a 3-foot radius on every side of the hydrants near their homes. The program was created by Take Care Tahoe and is supported by all the major water utility districts and fire protection districts in our region.

Although it requires some digging, most of the time it doesn’t take too much, and it goes a long way to help our local first responders in an emergency.

Every year, wood stoves and fireplaces cause more than 54,000 structure fires across the country. These types of fires occur at the highest rates during the winter months. When the fire department responds to a house fire, it typically has approximately 2,000 to 3,000 gallons of water on board the engines. That water is used up quickly, and firefighters then need to connect to the nearest fire hydrant. Finding and connecting to a fire hydrant is one of the firefighters’ first priorities when they arrive on the scene. However, having to access hydrants buried under several feet of snow can cause significant delays.

Steps to adopt your nearest fire hydrant this winter:

1) Make sure you know where your nearest hydrant is located. (Pro tip: You can often look for the large stake with red paint on the top mounted to the hydrant or adjacent bollard.)

2) Wait until the storm is over and dress appropriately to be outside removing snow.

3) Be mindful of traffic and make sure that if you’re digging in from the roadway, you have a spotter or someone to watch for vehicles and snow removal equipment.

4) Clear a 3-foot radius around the hydrant in all directions to give firefighters easy access if needed.

5) Last, but not least, take pride in your work and send a photo to your local fire district to let them know your fire hydrant is clear, or post a photo to social media with the tag #AdoptAHydrant.

With the fire hydrant clear and ready, I headed back inside to see if the faucet had started dripping. Thankfully, after a few hours of heat with the cabinet doors open, the water had started flowing again and I could shut the faucet off.

But we weren’t out of the frozen woods just yet. With the forecast calling for an extended period of freezing temperatures, I decided to head out the next day to buy and install that much-needed extra pipe insulation.

Although I lost a few ski days to shoveling and crawling around under the house, I know more powder days will come, and now I’m confident our home will be ready for the next storm.

For more information on handling frozen pipes and home water supply issues during the winter, visit the website of your local water utility district or call its emergency number.

To learn more about the Adopt-A-Hydrant program, visit takecaretahoe.org or call your local fire protection district’s non-emergency number.

~ Justin Broglio serves as the public information officer for the North Tahoe Public Utility District, which provides water, wastewater, and recreation services to the communities of Kings Beach, Tahoe Vista, and Carnelian Bay. 

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