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Ask the Builder: Texas winter storm autopsy: It can happen to you

Ask the Builder: Texas winter storm autopsy: It can happen to you

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This is my main water shutoff valve. Do you know where yours is? Do you know if it works?

Were you one of the millions of homeowners, renters or business owners who suffered from the recent miserable polar weather in the core of the USA? The storm and low temperatures left millions without power, drinking water, food and other necessities. Frozen and burst water pipes in houses and businesses are now as plentiful as flies at a summer cookout.

The past few days I’ve been trying to make sense of all the misery out there. A week ago I was a guest on the live midday WGN-TV news show to try to help the folks in Chicagoland who were suffering from extreme cold, ice dams and whatnot.

My takeaway from that brief appearance, as well as an avalanche of incoming help requests on my website, is that people have ignored the simple and easy things they could have done to protect their homes when these severe weather events happen.

I don’t know where the blame lies for this lack of transfer of basic home maintenance know-how, and to be honest, I don’t care. All I care about now is getting you up to speed so you know what to do to prevent burst water lines in your home.

Water expands in volume by 9 percent when it freezes. This usually isn’t a big deal if it freezes in an open bucket where the extra volume can go up into the air. Your water lines are different. They’re a closed system much like a can of fruit juice. Put one of those in your freezer and the next day it’s going to be split wide open just like your burst copper or galvanized iron water lines.

There are water lines that can handle this expansion. I have them in my own home and I installed it in my daughter’s new home. PEX plastic water lines can freeze and not burst. If you’re going to build a new home or remodel, consider PEX.

Here’s what to do if you don’t have PEX water lines. Step one is to clean your bathtub(s) and fill it to the brim with clean water. Do the same with as many buckets, bowls and pots as you own. You’ll use this for drinking, cooking, flushing toilets and so forth during the crisis.

Step two is to locate your main water shutoff valve and turn it off. It’s almost always where the water line enters your home. It could be in your basement, crawlspace or a closet.

You need to make sure the valve works and actually shuts off the water. This can be a touchy test because if you haven't exercised the valve before, it may not work, you may break the handle, or it might not reopen. Don’t do this test hours before you’re expecting 20 guests for Thanksgiving dinner. Don’t do this test on a weekend when plumbers might be hard to come by.

Let’s assume the valve works. Your water is now off so if the water lines were to burst, you wouldn't have to worry about thousands of gallons of water flowing across your floors like the great Mississippi River flowing across the flatlands.

But you’ve now created a hidden time bomb. Shutting off the water is not enough. We need to get as much water out of the water lines as possible. Find the lowest sink in your house and turn on both the hot and cold valve as if you needed warm water.

Now go through the entire house and flush every toilet, open up every valve, including tubs, showers, outside hose faucets, etc. You’ll see lots of water start flowing out of the first sink where you opened up the first valve. Gravity is pulling the water out of your water lines and replacing it with wonderful air. Do NOT close the valves on any faucet. Leave them open until such time as you can once again turn on the water.

If you feel it’s going to get bitter cold in your home, you’ll need to drain your water heater as well. That’s easy as it has a drain valve on the bottom of it.

Let’s say the power doesn’t come on and the temperature in the house is getting close to 32 F. Now it’s time to protect your toilet tanks and bowls and all the sink, tub, and shower traps. You can pour some RV antifreeze in all these. Most septic tanks and sewer systems won’t suffer with RV antifreeze. Don’t use regular car antifreeze, as it’s quite toxic.

If the water in the toilet bowl or traps freezes, you’ll have even more misery and expense. It’s so easy to prevent this damage. But, then again, it requires you to have three or four gallons of this antifreeze stored in your home, so you're not looking for it when it's sold out the day after the power goes out. Be prepared like a scout.

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