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What can Squamish learn from the pipe bursting 'armageddon' in Texas

A local plumber offers an explanation and advice for Squamish residents should our temperatures plunge and the electricity get cut off.

A family walks into their kitchen that looks like it sits at the bottom of a waterfall, as water streams through the ceiling.

Meanwhile, in an office hallway in another building, water rushes by like on the sinking Titanic.

These images and hundreds of others from Texas and, more recently, Louisiana and Tennessee, have filled social media and newspaper headlines as a rare cold snap hit those areas, leading to massive and lengthy power outages. Most seriously, people died from exposure or the ways they desperately tried to heat their homes. The numbers are still being crunched on the financial cost of damage done from pipes that were bursting like balloons at a children’s birthday party, but it will be substantial.

The Chief caught up with Squamish plumber Dave Iten of Plumb it Boy Plumbing and Heating to find out what happened in the U.S. and what Squamish folks can learn from the whole situation.

Q: Why are the pipes exploding on these people?

A:  The reason the pipes burst is that when the water freezes, it puts pressure against the dead-end of the faucet — or whatever the dead-end is — and that is what causes the pipe to burst. It is not the actual expansion of the ice.

Q: For us here, we have a hard time understanding how this could have happened to so many. Many people in B.C. have cabins they leave for long stretches, for example, in really cold temperatures with no problem. What else is going on with these houses?

A: The pipes haven't been insulated the way they are in houses here. And here you aren't allowed to run a waterline on an exterior wall so that if it is really cold outside, the pipes don't freeze in your wall. Underground, our pipes are buried below the frost line, so that the piping below the ground won't freeze either.[South Texas only buries water lines about 47 centimetres (18 inches) below ground surface In some areas and building codes allow water lines to emerge from below ground up to 1.8 metres (six feet) away from the home, according to]

The difference is say when people have a cabin they are not using or something, they know that the temperatures will drop, so they shut everything off and drain their whole house of water, which is why people don't have their pipes freezing in a cabin in Whistler, for example. 

You still do hear of people having a burst pipe in their house here when it has frozen, and that is usually because they have a hose bib that goes to the outside and they haven't shut off their hose bib off inside and drained it. So when that water freezes that is going outside, that can cause the pipe to split and they end up with a flooded house.

Q: Climate change is causing extreme weather events globally. Squamish in the future could perhaps see severe cold. Power outages are not unheard of here, either, with our wind. What is the temperature cut-off when we should worry about pipes freezing?

A: The cut-off would be once the inside of your is below 0°C. If the power was out for a while and you don't have any heat, then you might want to consider shutting off the water.

I have never heard of that happening here, but it is a possibility that it could happen.

One of the main things that I see all the time is that people don't know where their water shut-offs are in their house. Not only that, it is important to know where your water shut-off is outside the house. It happens to every plumber that you go to a house, someone has a leak that you can't shut off and you go outside to shut the water off, but no one who lives there knows how to shut off the water from the city to the house.

Q: So if you don't know, where should you look for your water shut-offs inside and outside?

A: It depends. It may be in a crawl-space, or it will be in your mechanical room in newer houses, with the furnace with a hot water tank. But it could also just be a little access panel somewhere in your house. 

It is going to be on the ground floor for sure.

A lot of the Valleycliffe houses that are similar, their shut-offs are tucked under their stairwells, nestled in the back corner. So, right at the front of the house, but under the stairs.

Townhouses are the same as houses. The newer builds have a garage and then a small closet with a sprinkler system valve and then the water shut-off is often in there, but I have also seen some new ones where they are in a spare bedroom downstairs.

For apartments, if you are lucky enough that each suite can be shut off, the shut-off will be in the ceiling or at the entrance to your unit.

Outside, the shut-off for a home will be close to the property line. So, before the sidewalk or close to your driveway.

For apartments, they usually have it in the parkade. Your strata will know and it is usually in a locked mechanical room.

Q: The temperatures are going back up in Texas so is there anything people should homeowners be aware of — there or here — in terms of turning the water back on once power is restored?

A: If they don't have any leaks then they can go ahead and slowly turn the water back on. You don't want to crank it back on because that can cause water hammer, which can damage pipes.

I also recommend running the water for a bit until it is clear to make sure that sediment is flushed out before you drink it.

Q: What about people who go out of town in Squamish during the winter? Any advice?

A: Don't shut your heat totally off. Some people do that and then it freezes and you end up with burst pipes. If you want to shut your water off and drain it, you want to make sure that you have all of your appliances shut down. 

It is good advice just to prepare your house. You don't need to shut your water off; I personally wouldn't.

I would just leave the heat on and have someone check on the house once in a while.

If you shut your water right off and you have a little leak in your hot water tank that you don't know about, you can end up draining your hot water tank and that is a hazard.

Q: What about hoses outside the house at this time of year? Should they be rolled up and put away?

A: If you have frost-free hose bibs, you can leave the hose on. The shut-off on the hose bib is inside the house, even though it looks like it is outside, so it is protected from freezing. But if you have just one of those classic blue hose bibs, then you definitely want to shut it off on the inside of the house and go outside and drain out the outside faucet. As long as frost-free bibs are installed properly — they need to be tilted downwards. I have seen them not be put in properly and the water in the hose bib freezes and homeowners end up with a flood. 

Q: What else do you see repeated in Squamish that folks could learn from?

A: In addition to knowing where your water shut-offs are, homeowners should know where their gas shut-off is outside.

And if we did have a cold spell and the power went out and the gas was shut off, don't do anything like bring your gas generator or gas barbecue inside to heat your house.

Carbon monoxide — which is an odourless gas — is going to fill your house and poison you.

There have been a couple of stories in the states about that and it is really sad and unfortunate.

Even if you have an appliance in your house or a wood fireplace that you haven't used in five years, it is wise to have those inspected before using them. Once a year inspection is usually good.

You don't know if a bunch of birds has been living in your chimney and now it is not venting properly, for example.

I think everyone in B.C. has had it drilled into them to have an emergency kit and some water and a camp stove ready just in case.

People may also be interested to know that you can get automated water shut-offs for your house.

That lets you monitor the water in your house. So, if you are out and water starts flowing inside your home, then you get an alert on your phone and can shut it off through your phone. There are a few different manufacturers.

They will also detect small leaks in your house. For example, I put one in at my house and I found out I had two leaky toilets and I was basically wasting half a gallon of water every hour. It was surprising.

They are not perfect yet, but they are really good.

Q: Switching gears a little bit, you guys are on a front-line of sorts going into people's houses and businesses, how has that been through the pandemic?

A: I wear a mask and carry hand sanitizer. Pretty much at every place I have been to, the customers have also put masks on. I am appreciative of that.