Frozen Water Pipes

It’s the wee hours of a crisp winter morning and I can’t wait to start
drilling. I just picked up a fresh tank of water, and I am getting the
hose hooked up to supply the main pump on the rig. It’s hard not to
just look around in wonder at the beautiful Maine woods that surround
me. I break from my daydream and begin leveling the rig when I feel
a hand gently shake my shoulder. “I cant get any water to come out,”
my wife says. I look over at the open valve on the tank and the
deflated hose attached to it. “Easy fix,” I say as she continues to jostle
me more viscerally with each shake. “It’s fine dear,” I say to try to calm
her nerves, which by the force of her hand seem to be getting more
frustrated by the second. “It’s not fine, dear,” my wife replies back. “I
need to take a shower…”
Wait. What?
“I need to take a shower, but there’s no water,” my wife says, as I
return to the waking world. It was just a dream. I consider trying to fall
back asleep but I can’t. I’m a water professional, this is not supposed
to be happening to me. As I lay there gathering my thoughts, the
phrase “you don’t miss the water till the well run dry” keeps playing in
my brain like a broken record.
Ain’t that the truth.
As it turns out, a mouse had chewed a small hole thru the insulation
on an exterior wall of the house, right next to a water pipe. Since it’s
the coldest morning of the winter yet, it froze, leaving us with no water.
So what do you do if you think the your pipes might be frozen? The
first and most important thing to do is to shut the power off to the
pump. If the water line from the pump to the house is frozen, the pump
could be running continuously, since it cant make enough pressure to
disengage the pressure switch. This is not an optimum scenario for a
submersible pump and it will shorten its life. Pump motors require a
constant flow of water to cool and if your water line is frozen there’s no
water flowing through it while your pump continues to run. Now that
the pump is off take a look at the pressure gauge on your expansion
tank tee. If the pressure reading is above the cut-in pressure listed on
the underside of your pressure switch cap, then the water line before
the tank is unlikely to be frozen. You can verify this by turning your
pump back on and draining water from the spigot at the tank until the
pressure gauge drops below the cut in pressure. At this point, you
should hear an audible click from the pressure switch as it sends
power to the pump. Close the spigot to allow the pump to refill the
expansion tank. If the pressure gauge doesn’t go back up after a
minute, your frozen water is between the tank and the pump. Turn the
pump back off in this scenario and put some warm clothes on, you’ll
be heading outside. If it does come back up to the cut off pressure,
and the pressure switch shuts the pump back off, then your frozen
water is somewhere after the expansion tank inside your house.
Troubleshooting Freezes Outside the House
Sometimes the water in the pitless adapter will freeze and you can
unthaw it by pouring hot water over it. Yes I said unthaw- just wanted
to see if you were paying attention. Frozen pitless adapters are
common where the depth of bedrock prevents them from being buried
deep enough. If this happens to you try insulating around the top of
the casing with Styrofoam. Obviously this wont thaw the line but it
should prevent future problems. Get a 2 foot by 2 foot piece of blue
Styrofoam board 2 inches thick and cut a hole in the center so you can
slide it over the casing. Dig an area around the casing so that you can
bury the Styrofoam a few inches below the dirt. Frost around the
casing is detrimental to the casing and pitless adapter and this will go
a long way toward keeping it away. Frost can not only cause frozen
pipes, it can also pull up on the casing which can break its seal to
bedrock, letting contaminants into the well. If thawing the pitless
adapter doesn’t work, you likely have a freeze in your waterline. In this
case, you may need to call a professional for help.
Troubleshooting Freezes Inside the House
If water is reaching your expansion tank then the problem is located
somewhere farther down the line. Start at the tank and work your way
down the plumbing to the next fixture in line. If you have water at that
fixture, you have verified flow to that point, so continue to the next
fixture in line until you find one that has no water. Your frozen pipe will
be located somewhere between this fixture and the one functioning
one before it. Typically, if a pipe freezes inside the house it will be on
an exterior wall that is poorly insulated. Check for visual cues such as
condensation on the pipe or frost from the condensation freezing, and
use your hand to feel for cold spots on the pipe. Once you have
located it, you can melt the ice plug with a hairdryer or an electric
heating pad wrapped around the pipe. Keep the down line faucet open
so you can tell when the pipe is thawed.
So, you ask: why is my water system frozen now when it has never
happened before? One thing I see often which causes this is lack of
snow cover over the waterline. If you all of the sudden decide it’s a
good idea to plow the snow off your back lawn and the waterline from
the well runs underneath that area you could be in trouble. Trust me, I
know. It happened to me, except it was the line going to the septic
tank at my shop. I’ll never do that again.