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Bellingham plumber shares advice on how to avoid frozen pipes this winter

Plumber Brett Colburn of Favinger Plumbing Inc., rolls out from under a mobile home on Hannegan Road after fixing a frozen pipe Jan. 19, 2011. Colburn says it is best to leave your faucets dripping so the pipes don't freeze in the cold weather. At right, is apprentice plumber Travis Johnson
Plumber Brett Colburn of Favinger Plumbing Inc., rolls out from under a mobile home on Hannegan Road after fixing a frozen pipe Jan. 19, 2011. Colburn says it is best to leave your faucets dripping so the pipes don't freeze in the cold weather. At right, is apprentice plumber Travis Johnson THE BELLINGHAM HERALD

Northwest winters bring great skiing, snowboarding and snowman-making. They can also bring frozen pipes and plumbing headaches. I know from personal experience the bother of dealing with busted pipes and squeezing into a crawl space when I’d rather be warm inside.

If your pipes have survived our first blast of cold weather, then congratulations for your preparedness or your good luck. But good luck doesn’t always hold, so to help residents avoid the headache of frozen plumbing, I asked Robert Yancey, the owner of Ball Plumbing in Bellingham, to share his expert advice. It may come in handy, as another round of freezing weather is expected this weekend.

Before the next really cold weather hits, what should homeowners do to reduce the risk of frozen pipes?

In the event of a catastrophic cold snap, leave a sink faucet’s cold water slightly running, because moving water is hard to freeze. Make sure the drain isn’t clogged, though. Set the building thermostat to a minimum of 50 degrees. Keeping the pipes warm is the goal. Disconnect garden hoses. Leaving garden hoses connected is the most common cause of broken pipes.

What materials work best for homeowners insulating their pipes?

Insulate all pipes that are exposed to the air or are in unheated rooms. Examples of this would be crawl spaces, garages and attics. While most anything can serve as an insulator, there are products designed for quick and easy insulation. My favorite is a product called Thermacel.

The next big thing is to enclose the crawl space vents. Crawl space vents are those openings in your foundation between the ground and the siding. I usually install my vent covers on Halloween and remove them the first day of spring.

What should people do about their outside pipes and faucets?

First and foremost is to disconnect the hoses and attachments. There are covers for hose faucets that maybe half of houses use, but if the hose is unattached and the pipes are insulated under the house, the covers aren’t needed. My hose faucets are original, 20 years old, and still working fine without the covers.

What should people do, and not do, if they need to thaw a frozen pipe?

Tough question. My knee-jerk reaction is to call a licensed plumber, because quite often a frozen pipe means a broken pipe. Defrosting the pipe may be the least of your worries, because once you’ve defrosted it, you may have a huge flood from the freeze break.

The answer also depends on the weather, including whether it’s going to thaw soon. If you’re totally frozen and the cold snap is going past your tolerance point, crawl under the house and determine where the piping system is frozen. Cut out that section of frozen pipe and replace it. Turn back on the water (you did turn it off, right?) and check to see if all faucets are working. If yes, hero! If no, rinse and repeat.

Or if the weather is going to warm up soon, tough it out and wait. Turn off the water and wait for the thaw. When things are warmed up, turn on the water and run, crawl and climb around looking for freeze breaks.

Another way is to leave a tub faucet (one with a clear drain) on a little. The pressure behind the frozen clog might help clear the way.

Again: frozen pipes equal broken pipes. When the ice thaws, floods can occur from the broken pipe, so be aware of that.

What should a homeowner do if they discover a broken pipe?

You’d be shocked at how many people don’t know how to shut off their water in case of an emergency. Clearly mark all of your shut-offs (water, gas, propane, electricity) and know how to do it.

The first thing to do is turn off the water. If you don’t know how or can’t do it, your water company has 24-hour emergency service and, for a fee, they’ll do it. Of course, calling a licensed plumber is always the best option.

I should mention that only the water company or a licensed plumber who is registered with the water company is allowed to touch the main water shut-off near the street.

Repair the pipe or call a licensed plumber. The Bellingham Herald has a Whatcom Biz Finder section in the classified ads that has a fine plumber who’s always looking for work. Googling “plumbers in Bellingham WA” works, too.

What should people who are leaving for a holiday or winter trip do to prevent problems with pipes while they are away?

Lucky us for living in a warmer seaside climate. A little ways north or east, the winterizing rules are strict and must be adhered to. For our purposes and for short absences, leave the thermostat at a minimum of 50 degrees and leave a faucet trickling, making sure the drain is clear.

For summer homes or extended leaves, there’s a long winterizing list that is readily available on the Internet.

Without naming names, describe an especially memorable job dealing with frozen pipes.

A businessman who was born and raised in the county left his thermostat off and water system charged while on his annual winter escape to Hawaii. Next spring, he discovered that all six hose faucets were froze broke. I had to cut open six custom-painted walls to access the pipes for repair.

The very next year he leaves a garden hose connected and it freeze breaks again. I tried to convince him to give me his Maui home because it’s obviously cursed. He only stopped laughing when I handed him the bill.

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