Anytime you leave your home on an extended trip, it’s a good rule of thumb to turn off all the utilities – especially the water! This rule is especially important during the winter months when water could potentially freeze and then thaw causing pipes to burst.
That’s just what happened in Detroit, Michigan a few weeks ago when a pipe burst in a vacant 100-year-old home while the owners were away gushing water into the home and eventually out of the windows creating a real-life version of Elsa’s “Frozen” castle.
In addition to home plumbing nightmares, in cold regions you might have noticed the increase in water main breaks every day in yours and neighboring communities. With a nation facing aging infrastructure problems and water and sewer lines deeply affected by rapid temperature changes, it’s no surprise the rate of failures could be thousands per day around the world. But what exactly causes all of these plumbing problems?
When water pipes freeze and expand, the force doubles from around 400 pounds to 800 pounds, creating new cracks or expanding current cracks. Anytime there is a crack in a pipe – whether on private property or a water main, water is escaping and spilling into the ground around the pipe. If this pipe is under a road, a sinkhole could develop quickly and without warning – such as the sinkhole that swallowed a car in Florida just last week.
As a homeowner, you are responsible for the water and sewer lines on your private property. When temperatures rapidly change from warm to cold or dip down below freezing, this creates a perfect storm for a break or leak. Be on the lookout for signs of a problem not only on your own property, but in your neighborhood. Alerting the water or sewer authority of a suspected problem in your area could avoid a potential catastrophe.
Video from KJRH.
Shifting temperatures causing water line breaks aren’t just a headache; they can be very dangerous. On January 12, 2015, in Tulsa, Oklahoma, a water main break shot water more than 30 feet in the air, destroying the canopy and pumps of a gas station in just minutes. While the aftermath looked like a tornado blew through town, the reality is water caused this destruction. Check out the security camera footage from the gas station below.
Video from KJRH.
When main water lines break, you have to deal with the headaches it causes: icy roads, interrupted water service. But in the end, the city’s Department of Public Works will make the repairs. Your private water line, however, can cause the same problems, but you have to handle the repairs.
Many factors contribute to water and sewer line failures, including age, extreme temperature, quick changes (from hot to cold) and other environmental elements, such as ground shifting and roots. The winter months continue to be a danger to water and sewer lines for breaks and leaks – especially when the temperatures rapidly change from warm to extreme cold as we’ve seen in many parts of the world. As a homeowner, your lines are just as susceptible to problems as public infrastructure because they face the same age and climate concerns as public pipes; however, when private lines break or leak, the repair is on the homeowner.
As the snow continues to fall with yo-yo style temperatures, be mindful of your water and sewer pipes and protect them using a few simple tricks:
- Run a slow stream of water during the coldest days to prevent frozen pipes.
- Ensure all pipes on exterior walls or outside are well insulated.
- Watch your ground for wet spots or a foul smell, which would indicate a leak or break.
Additionally, if you see a water line break, make sure to report it to the public works department and do not attempt to drive through the water. It only takes a few inches of fast-moving water to move a car and as you saw in the video, powerful water can crush metal.
Watching the ground around your sewer lines for damp spots is a great idea, but what if you don’t know where your sewer lines are located? Perhaps you’re looking to purchase a house and want to check for potential problems ahead of time. How can you locate the sewer lines easily?
- City sewer lines generally run from the public connector outside of the home, so look for a manhole cover outside of the home, near the driveway or curbside – that is an indicator of a public line.
- Contact your local officials or public works department and ask for a copy of the sewer map for the area.
- Look for small pipes, or cleanouts, sticking out of the ground.
- Ask your county deed office for a map of your property.
- Call your local plumber that has a camera to locate the lines.
- Call a utility marking company.
Once you identify where your pipes are located, you can watch the area for wet spots and other signs of a problem.