Frozen Pipes on the Farm

frozenpipes2Have you ever been on vacation, and encountered hard water? Depending on where you live, you may have hard water at home. The kind of water that leaves towels stiff and won’t let soap build suds? We have been experiencing extremely hard water for the last week. Our water has gotten so hard that, at times, it has refused to flow through pipes or into cattle waterers. I am pretty sure the change in our water’s viscosity is due to the negative temperatures, and not mineral contaminants.

If you have a modern, well-thought-out structure, chances are low that your water lines will freeze.The chance is there though. Any cracks or gaps where cold air can infiltrate your house can result in a frozen pipe. Despite my efforts, we have frozen up twice at our house, once at my mother’s, and had one block of ice previously known as a cattle waterer.  It would seem that my poor record would disqualify me from giving advice on keeping water pipes thawed and running. Not so, my friends. Any experience you can walk away from is a chance to learn. Here is what I have learned so far.

Start looking for trouble areas when temps drop to the thirties and forties. Stick your hand into your livestock waterers.Is the water really cold? The heater may have burned out since last winter. Replacing it before a hard freeze will save you a broken water pipe later. Ice sculptures are beautiful. Unless your want to install some free-form, modern ice art in your feeding pen, I would suggest you check the heaters in your cattle waterers.frozenpipes1

Well and pump houses can be above or below ground. This is where your water gets pumped to and directed from. If you don’t have heat in a well house, at least add a heat lamp. One of our old water systems has a pressure tank and water valves below ground under a large trap door. After adding a heat lamp I layer old carpet on top of the door to stop cold air from flowing down. Make sure nothing flammable is close to the hot lamp.

Water pipes have frozen at my house where the new addition connects to the old structure.The problem did not come from cold air seeping through the walls. The cold air sneaked in from above. A little under-sight on my part caused the problem.When I connected the addition, I left the insulation in the connecting wall to act as a sound barrier. At the top of the wall are my pipes. This left them well insulated from much of the heat from the interior rooms, but inadequately insulated above. I have blown in 3 feet of insulation in my attic, making it look like a winter wonderland. This did not stop cold air from seeping down the old roof line and into the wall. I added a vent to the interior wall to allow warm air into the cavity, and stuffed more insulation into gaps above the pipes.

frozenpipes3If you are unsure whether or not your pipes can stand the cold, you can use an old standby. Leaving faucets dripping or dribbling, will keep the water flowing. Yes, it is wasteful, but how wasteful is it when a water pipe bursts and sends a few thousand gallons of water into your house? When the crew from “This Old House” is knocking on your door with crowbars in hand, a few nights of faucet dripping will seem cheap. As soon as possible, the cold areas around your pipes should be insulated to ward off problems in the future. As long as we are on the subject of house damage, let me give you a little tip many don’t think of. Take your family around the house and show them where utilities shutoffs are located, and how to operate them. When you are an hour from the house and get the kitchen-floor-is-covered-with-water call, you will thank me for that little piece of advice!

Do hot water pipes freeze first? Only if they get below 32 degrees before the cold water pipes. I believe this theory comes from the wastefulness I mentioned above. I grew up in a farm house with wood heat. Straw bales were stacked around the foundation on the North facing walls during the winter month to ward off air infiltration. Drip, drip, drip was heard all night long in an attempt to stave off freezing pipes. To let the hot water drip was more expensive than the cold water. The water heater would have to heat more water. This is why the belief still exists that hot water pipes freeze more often than cold water pipes.

frozenpipes4Before I get into the art of thawing frozen pipes, let me say one thing… Don’t burn your house down! There are commercial (aka “salamander”) heaters that can melt the insulation off of your wiring. Often, there are flammables where you wouldn’t expect them to be. Pay close attention to your surroundings, and don’t rush it. If you can determine where the pipe is frozen, a hair dryer is all that is needed to thaw things out (please note that a hair dryer can be hot enough to ignite flammables). If you cannot access the area, or cannot locate the frozen section, a larger heating unit, and possibly professional help, is needed.

For frozen livestock tanks and outdoor piping, you can turn up the heat. The kerosene and diesel “salamander” area heaters work well.There is still danger of too much heat. Of the 6 frozenpipes5older metal cattle waterers left on the farm, only one has all of its thermal and wiring insulation.The others have all been scarred by heaters placed to close in an effort to speed thawing. I still have a large kerosene, blower-type heater, but I prefer to use a smaller LP version when possible. A ten pound tank and an inverter in my truck make this a much more feasible option for one person than the heavy kerosene model.

In extreme temperatures, remember to use your noggin (that’s your head, for the younger readers). Your safety and well-being is more important than any equipment. Don’t leave open flame heaters unattended. Don’t place heaters to close to materials that can melt, or catch fire. Above all, don’t risk your safety in extremely cold temperatures.  

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