By Bill Hudson

MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — A sudden cold snap hitting Minnesota is all it takes to get the phones ringing at local plumbers. That’s because they’re the experts when it comes to thawing — and repairing — frozen water and drain pipes.

Below zero temperatures overnight caused the water lines at a home in Golden Valley to freeze, but it’s not the first time the homeowner has faced that problem.

After he examined the kitchen sink cabinet, master plumber Tim Hammack said it “looks like that pipe was replaced a year ago.” The homeowner acknowledged that the same line was ruptured by intense cold a year ago.

It’s an older home with an overhanging kitchen wall that exposes the sink and water lines to the cold. One call to his plumber and the problem was figured out.

“It’s not being protected from the elements at all, so the cold air gets up there and causes the pipe to freeze,” Hammack explains.

Hammack is field supervisor with Benjamin Franklin plumbing and sees this winter woe often: Water pipes that are running along outside walls, or in wall cavities that are poorly insulated.

But simply wrapping pipes in foam or fiberglass insulation isn’t the answer. That can actually make the problem worse by preventing warm air from reaching the water lines.

The solution is to prevent cold air from reaching the pipes in the first place, by sealing holes and leaks to the outside air.

“You want to insulate the cold air from coming in. You don’t want to insulate the heat from getting at the pipe. That’s the first thing – make sure you’re not insulating and encapsulating that pipe,” Hammack adds.

Leaving a sink cabinet door open will let warmer air circulate around water pipes. In the coldest weather, try to keep the home’s thermostat at a constant temperature, at 68 degrees or above. Often times a homeowner can keep a faucet dripping slightly to help prevent frozen pipes.

Other pipe problems aren’t so easy like the rash of broken water mains that area public works crews are currently facing. It happens when intense cold causes the ground to shift and heave, breaking valves, hydrants and buried water mains.

“It’s never ending when it gets to be cold like this,” Hammack said.

One more tip: a lot of times a recent remodeling project can lead to frozen pipes in places where they never froze before. That’s because something like a finished basement ceiling will now prevent warm air from circulating around the pipes.

As for a simple way to predict that your water mains and service leading to your home might be headed for problems? Public works experts say they learned last year that the water temperature at the faucet is a good predictor.

If the cold water runs at 38 degrees or less, it means that frost is very deep and the underground lines are at risk of freezing and breaking. Cold water that runs at 40 degrees Fahrenheit or greater shouldn’t be a problem.

Bill Hudson

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