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Frozen Water Pipe Bursts Under House in Latest Snowstorm

It was like a comedy of errors as we struggled to fix a burst water pipe during the past few days. We thought the house and all of its systems were capable of weathering the winter storms, but we should’ve checked a little more closely to make sure the foundation vents were insulated enough. Cold air had been seeping through a couple of vents near the outside water taps, and the pipes that run under the house from there froze. Unfortunately, those pipes are cheap copper. The copper pipes then connect in the cellar to galvanized pipes that are much sturdier. A couple of galvanized pipes in that area and over on the other side of the house in the laundry room also froze but did not burst.

Can you guess what time it was when we discovered the spraying water under the house? If you guessed the middle of the night, you are correct. Of course these things always happen in the middle of the night. It’s likely because the house is so quiet that anyone awake can hear the dripping of water. In this case, it was much more than a drip. I happened to be up exceptionally late that night, and right before heading to bed I went into the bathroom. As I was standing there, I remember thinking that everything was off; the dishwasher wasn’t running, there was no laundry going, and no one else was using a bathroom. Then why do I hear the sound of water running? I was deeply concerned, and so I went throughout the house to every room that had water. Kitchen, bathrooms and laundry room all seemed okay. That left the cellar. I grabbed a flashlight and all alone crept down the stairs into the spooky recesses of the cellar.

At first I didn’t hear anything, and so I went further back, ducked under the heating ducts and around to the deepest, darkest, dirtiest corner where the water heater is located. Near there is a crawlspace that goes from the cellar and underneath the south end of the house.

My flashlight shone across the concrete wall and I immediately noticed water running out from the  crawlspace down the wall to the floor.

There is a piece of sheet rock covering the crawl space opening. Rather warily, I set the flashlight down and hesitantly removed the sheet rock, picturing some beady-eyed rodent with sharp teeth hissing at me on the other side. Resolutely I braved my fear and pulled back the sheet rock.

Instead of an animal, water that had been pooling there rushed over the edge of the wall to splash on the floor at my feet. I picked up my flashlight and shown it into the dark recesses of the crawlspace, where I could detect the sound of a deluge of water gushing out of a broken pipe somewhere further under the house.

At this point I rushed back upstairs to my bedroom to wake up my husband. You can imagine his delight to be awakened from his snoring slumber to the news of a broken water pipe. Bare chested, he threw a heavy fleece robe on over his underwear and stuffed his feet into boots. Together, we stumbled down the stairs, and once in the mud room I threw on my coat and boots, and then into the the dark and snowy backyard we went.

Snow pelted us as my husband gestured vaguely  into the backyard, and he said the main shutoff was out there in the lawn, somewhere in that direction. I looked where he pointed, and then I ran in  a sliding gait across the yard to retrieve a snow shovel from near the chicken coop.  I took the first turn and began to shovel away the foot and a half of snow, desperately in search of the tiny green plastic cover under which the shutoff valve was located. It was like trying to find a needle in a haystack. Why had we not marked the main shutoff in some way so it could be found in the snow? A word to the wise: If you buy a new house, clearly mark where the main water shutoff is located so you can find it later.  After an hour taking turns shoveling and clearing an enormous area (with much complaining from me and some amount of fighting) we finally found it with the help of a screwdriver my husband was poking into the ground. Somehow we'd skipped over the snow-cleared ground in all our frantic digging, it was right there under our feet half-way through the ordeal.

As we worked, I kept wondering what our neighbors must think, assuming they could hear or see us digging in the yard in the middle of the night.  And my husband was in his robe! Once we finally found the shutoff, we then had to pry the lid off and dig in the loose soil on our hands and knees to find and turn the valve.  Whew, step one was finally done! Now very filthy, we next had to assess the damage to the pipes and come up with a plan.

Our muddy boots and hands left prints on the doors, floors and walls as we stumble wearily back inside and prepared to go into the cellar, but for once in my life I really didn't care about the dirt.

There are all kinds of shutoff valves down there in the cellar along each section of pipe. Trying to turn a couple, we realize they’ve pretty much all seized up over time. But there is one that we believed went to the broken pipe that we were able to turn off most of the way… However, that night we mistakenly believed we had it all the way turned off. Which is why we then turned the main water line for the house back on before showering and going to bed.

The next morning, I noticed that there was still a lot of dripping underneath the house. Too much dripping for the fix last night to have worked.  Why didn't the dripping stop?  The shut off valve on the pipe obviously wasn’t closed all the way. Despite applying as much strength as possible, it could not be closed all the way. We shut off the water outside at the main line again, as at this point we realized we needed to either fix the pipe that was underneath the house in the crawlspace, or cut the pipe in the cellar where it goes to that section of the house and cap it.

The opening to the crawlspace and the crawlspace itself were not very well planned by whomever built the house. Maybe a small child could fit under there, but definitely not an adult. I can be brave when the time requires it, but there was no way was I going to try crawling under there. I'm smaller than my it would be me crawling under the house. Doing so would mean my head would be pressed into the floor joists, where cobwebs hang! There wasn't enough room! No way. So we opted for Plan B, cutting and capping the pipe.

Of course, we had no idea where the box of miscellaneous copper fittings and pipe repair supplies were in our garage.  That was mistake #2 and a word to the wise: when moving, take note of your supplies for repairs, and find them soon. You may need them.  And so, this meant we had to brave the treacherous, snow-packed roads into town to buy supplies.

Hartnagel's Building Supply was nearly sold-out of copper pipe fittings. We bought the last two copper caps they had in stock, and chatted with a man who was there as well to fix broken water pipes at his house. We also bought R-5 insulation board for putting around the foundation, a propane torch, solder, soldering flux, and pipe insulation.

Once home, we refilled our coffee cups and began working on repairs.

I thought the purple insulation board went nicely with our peeling paint.

Next we started working on the pipe -- the water was off and we had all our supplies.  We didn't have a pipe cutter handy, and so my husband used his sawzall to cut the copper pipe.  I will admit we seem to always use the sawzall for repairing copper pipes - this wasn't the first time. Hey, it works.

The pipe dripped a lot after being cut.  It dripped and dripped...we left a while, drank coffee, came back and it was still dripping.  I think water may have been frozen deeper inside and was slowly thawing and dripping out.  Finally, we gave up on waiting and tried to repair it using one of our only two caps.  I had a moment of inspiration - I remembered my dad's trick of using bread to keep the line dry.  So I grabbed a piece of bread from the kitchen, tore out a middle doughy section, and stuffed a piece into the pipe. Soldering the cap on went well enough, and we thought it was good.  Once it was soldered in place, I went outside to turn on the main water line.

Drip, drip, drip.  Try #1 did not appear to be holding. My husband tried turning the shutoff valve on the pipe to see if he could tighten it any more, and the dripping grew into a terrible spray.  I ran outside to shut off the water again.

While cursing, my husband re-lit the torch and began the process of removing the faulty cap.  Meanwhile, I thought more about the bread.  Maybe it needed to be gummier.  I chewed up a big piece and we began try #2, with really gummy bread shoved into the line.  My husband realized the cap was sliding off while soldering it, and asked me to run into the garage to get a wrench or something, so I left momentarily.  As I was headed back, I heard him shouting:

"Dammit....Becky, I'M ON FIRE!"

I ran down the steps into the cellar, and then in my hurry smashed my head into the heating duct that hangs down (nearly knocking myself out), and then blearily tried to focus on the scene before me.  My husband was frantically waving a lit propane torch and his arm that was on fire, perhaps undecided about which to deal with first.  "Turn off the torch!" I yelled, then helped  him with the coat.  He shut off the torch, put it down, and quickly shucked off his heavy fabric coat, a favorite coat with wonderful puffy padding that has kept him warm all winter.  I balled it up to try to put out the flames.

"Is it out?" he asked, and I thought it was, but upon unrolling it, the thing burst back into flames.  The inner padding was reigniting and flames kept exploding out of it.  In desperation, I ran up the cellar steps and out the mudroom door, and threw the coat into the yard.

It was a little while before we felt like finishing try #2.  Unfortunately, we encountered the same results as the first try.

There were no more pipe fittings left from Hartnagels, and so we began debating calling a plumber.  It was getting too late for another trip to Hartnagels or any other hardware store.  As we discussed Plan C, we realized this would go into another day, as my husband needed to unpack more of the boxes in the garage in order to find plumbing supplies we'd brought with us from our previous house.

Fast forward to the next day...with found supplies in hand, we had a new tactic that worked wonderfully.  My husband found a copper cap fitting with a galvanized plug in it. The plug screws in, and plumber's tape is applied to the screw threads.  By removing the plug, we could solder on the cap fitting and any water that is dripping out can drip all the way through while we soldered.

Thus our ordeal had ended, the pipe was capped off, and we were able to turn on the main water line.

"I've been absolutely terrified every moment of my life, and I've never let it keep me from doing a single thing I wanted to do." -- Georgia O'Keefe

How much of my life has been about this quote.  I'm terrified living here all the time, in this big old rambling house out along Morse Creek, where anything could happen.  But even with setbacks like this, my family agrees it's wonderful living out here in this beautiful place with acreage around us and a barn next door.

I've been checking the cellar every couple hours though, just to make sure nothing's leaking. And, until it warms up outside, we've left the water dripping in the kitchen, bathroom and laundry room sinks, to avoid any more frozen pipes.