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Brace the Pipes and Bring on the Cold!

Ready or not, it’s here. By now, many parts of the country have faced chilly, and even below freezing, temperatures. As typical with Fall weather, the days are warm enough that the quick overnight freeze isn’t a major problem. Yet.

Soon, though, those cold temperatures will be around day and night. That means a greater risk of water freezing in pipes. THAT means a greater risk of bursting pipes and lots of damage.

In this edition of eBulletin, we’ll tell you what the EPA recommends you do to prepare your water system for the winter. We’ll also give you some of the many methods suggested for winterizing water systems that you can pass along to your customers, and we’ll provide a quick tool that you can use to help them prepare for the cold weather. Finally, we’ll pass along a few tips to prepare for winter storms.

The Basics: Checking Things Out

Homeowners, businesses and even water systems spend millions each year to clean up and repair damage from burst pipes caused by cold weather, though it’s hard to pinpoint a specific figure. But water system workers know the drill. While a plumber more than likely will have to repair the damage to pipes inside the home, the customers will call the water system to help with shutting off the water or even figuring out what to do with the extra-high water bill.

The best method for dealing with this situation is to prevent it, and doing so requires a little preparation by both the water system and the customer. We’ll start at the top: the water system.

For the Water System
The EPA has several recommendations for water systems to prepare for and get through the winter.

First, inspect system heaters to be sure they’re working properly. The EPA recommends doing inspections in October or November, though those in the North should start in September. After a thorough inspection, the heaters should be checked daily to ensure they’re working properly. You also need to make sure any propane or fuel-fed heaters are full of fuel. Having the heaters out due to lack of fuel, even for a few hours, can lead to pipe or pump freeze.

Another recommendation is to make sure fire hydrants are clearly visible and maintained during the winter. The need for maintenance or use by the local fire department can come up at any time, but things can get complicated if the hydrants have to be dug out first. Make sure the hydrants are brightly colored and easily visible. Make sure snow drifts are removed from around the hydrants,  Also, make sure the hydrants are drained before the cold weather sets in, and be sure they’re well sealed to help prevent freezing or damage.

The biggest preparation will be to inspect outside equipment such as pipes, pumps and valves. Make sure they’re well insulated and all seals are intact and tight. Be sure to fix any leaky seals, because they may shrink in the colder weather, leading to bigger leaks and frozen (or burst) pipes. That will cost a lot more in the long run.

Also, be sure to seal the vents at the pump house to keep the cold out as much as possible. The heaters won’t do much good if cold air is pouring in from an outside vent.

Finally, drop the water level in your storage tanks slightly. You want plenty of room for the water to circulate. The more the water can circulate, the less chance it has of freezing.

These tips should help you get your water system ready for even the coldest of winters, which some forecasters say is what much of the country will have this year.

Once again, here’s a quick checklist:

  • Inspect heaters in the Fall to ensure they’re working properly, and check them daily during the winter
  • Keep fire hydrants clearly visible by removing snowdrifts and making sure the paint is bright enough to see.
  • Drain the hydrants and make sure the seals are adequate to prevent damage from freezing.
  • Check all exposed equipment such as pumps, pipes and valves to ensure they’re well sealed and insulated.
  • Make sure vents are closed.
  • Make sure propane or fuel tanks for heating pump houses are topped off.
  • Reduce the water levels in storage tanks slightly for better circulation to prevent freezing.
  • Decommission any equipment not needed for the winter

Additional Resources

Preventive Maintenance Tasks for Small Public Water Systems Using Groundwater (PDF booklet)
Preventive Maintenance Card File for Small Public Water Systems Using Ground Water (PDF log cards

For the Customers

There are two methods of winterizing a home – to prepare for winter in an occupied house, and to shut a home down for the winter and not occupy it.

The amount of preparation obviously is determined by location. Residents in Seattle will have cold, but may not face several days in a row of below-freezing temperatures, like residents of Minnesota or the Dakotas.

While it’s best to tailor preparation suggestions to your area, there are some basic suggestions that could apply to everyone facing cold winter days. Several agencies offer suggestions, from water systems to the American Red Cross. Here are a few for those planning on remaining in the home:

  • Drain water from swimming pool and water sprinkler supply lines, as well as outdoor hoses. Don’t cap the outside valve – leaving it open will allow any water in there to expand outward, rather than expanding in the pipes and eventually breaking them. Leave water in the pool itself to help keep walls from being cracked by expanding ground water.
  • Insulate all pipes that run outside or along an exterior wall if possible, using pipe sleeves, foam, tape or even newspaper. Caulk around pipes where they enter the house. Make sure the pipes in indoor, unheated areas are well insulated, including in attics, basements and garages.
  • Open cabinet doors to allow warm air to circulate to the plumbing.
  • Let a trickle of water run from faucets during extremely cold weather, which will help keep it from freezing in the interior and exterior pipes.

We also have a few tips for those who will be leaving their home for warmer climates this winter.

  • Close foundation vents to prevent cold air from coming in, and cover the vents well with wood or Styrofoam.
  • Shut off the outside water and drain the valve.
  • Make sure outside pipes and inside, unheated pipes are well insulated.
  • Shut off and drain the indoor water system as well. Turn off the main valve, turn on all faucets and flush the toilet, then drain the main valve and shut off all the faucets. Make sure the water heater is turned off during this process. Drain the heater, as well as pipes for the refrigerator, dishwasher and washing machine.
  • Make sure the water is nearly all drained from the toilet tank (it may take a couple of flushes once the water is turned off), but try to keep a bit of water in the bowl to prevent sewer gas from backing up into the toilet – and the house.
  • Keep all cabinets open to keep the pipes warm inside.
  • Turn thermostat no lower than 55° to help keep pipes warm inside.

Want to get these tips to your customers? We’ve provided a way. Check out the link below for a PDF form in our Tips and Tools. The sheet can be printed and mailed to your customers.

Additional Resources

American Red Cross: Preventing and Thawing Frozen Pipes,1082,0_579_,00.html

Some agencies and web sites suggest pouring antifreeze made for recreational vehicles in pipes, including those for swimming pools and sprinkler systems.

Not a good idea, according to the American Red Cross and the Environmental Protection Agency. The main reason is a simple one – antifreeze is toxic to humans, pets, wildlife and landscaping and is harmful to the environment. Antifreeze shouldn’t be used unless specifically called for by a manufacturer.

An alternative is a salt solution of one cup of salt per gallon of water. The solution is only needed if pipes are going to be without heat for an extended period of time, such as during a power outage or if the building is being closed for the winter.

More Tips for You

It isn’t just pipes, pumps and homes that should be prepared for tough winter weather. Water systems’ offices and employees need to ready themselves as well.

Here are a few suggestions to help you prepare for winter storms:

  •  Make sure your vehicles are ready for the cold weather. Check all the fluids, especially antifreeze.
  • Make sure tires are inflated to a proper pressure for the cold, and be sure the tread isn’t too worn. Extremely worn tread won’t be able to get traction as easily on ice- or snow-covered roads.
  • Be ready to put on snow tires or snow chains, and be sure to take them off as soon as the roads are clear. Using the chains on dry roads can wear the chains out fasters, as well as the tires. They also can damage the roadways.
  • Make sure all vehicles have full fuel tanks prior to a major storm. Many gas pumps are electric, so you may have a hard time getting gas if the power is out.
  • Be sure the office is prepared for weather-induced blackouts. Have plenty of flashlights on hand, as well as plenty of batteries. If using rechargeables, make sure the batteries are fully charged. Put them on a charger about once a week to maintain full charge.
  • Have a generator on standby for the office, especially for computer use. Make sure there is enough fuel for the generator.
  • Make sure you have a solid method of communication. Keep cell phone batteries fully charged and have fresh batteries for walkie-talkies. Get a car charger for your cell phone if you don’t already have one. If the power is out for several days, that may be the only way to charge your phone.
  • Make sure employees know, understand and can utilize the system’s emergency plan. Be sure there are plenty of copies available for employees.
  • Make sure your company’s contacts list is up to date. Emergency contacts list should include not only your employees, but also heads of other utilities in town and city officials, including the mayor and city council members.
  • Check all supplies and make sure you have plenty, in case bad weather delays shipments. Ensure you have plenty of spare piping and repair parts available to fix any burst pipes around town.
  • Keep customers informed as best as possible of water interruptions, mainly through newspapers and radio stations, since portable analog televisions will no longer work after February due to FCC laws requiring digital signals.
  • Have a plan in place to assess damage quickly and efficiently once power is restored and traveling becomes easier.

These are a few suggestions to keep in mind as you prepare your customers, and yourself, for Old Man Winter.