Rudi Kiefer: Beware risks of pipes freezing in winter
Water comes in three different forms, or phases: liquid, solid or gas. Trouble tends to arise right at the point where one phase changes to another.

Freezing, turning liquid water into ice, comes with expansion. Ice occupies 9 percent more volume than the equivalent amount of liquid water.

This can do serious damage to home plumbing. Copper pipes are vulnerable to freezing temperatures, but PVC tends to burst, too, when ice forms in it. Outside faucets are the most exposed.

Old ones with the familiar T-handles, made decades ago, tend to be thick and solid. They can put up with some abuse from freezing wind.

The most common models found in today’s building supply stores are imported and have much thinner walls.

That’s especially true for the quarter turn variety with the straight handle. Instead of a plunger controlling the flow, there’s a rotating ball inside. A very thin metal skin around it forms the outside of this faucet. Even a short freeze can crack it and reduce the fixture to scrap metal.

An inexpensive Styrofoam cap, attached tightly against the house wall, may help some. But a hard single-digit freeze is likely to penetrate and crack the faucet.

There are some models available claiming to be freeze-proof because the plunger that stops the water is deep inside the wall. My own solution that’s kept six outside taps from damage is based on a similar principle: Where there’s no water, none can freeze.

It required cutting the drywall open inside the house. Where water lines were coming from below, they received an extension to reach above faucet level. At the highest point, an inset valve now allows for shutting off the flow, confining the water-carrying parts of the pipe to the warm indoor side.

Elbows make it descend toward the outside and the faucet. With the valve closed, opening the outdoor faucet drains all remaining water, and nothing can freeze.

Before winter starts next month, it’s useful to check crawl spaces and basements for exposed pipes. Copper conducts heat well, so that even a mild breeze can cause it to freeze where air comes through a crack and hits an exposed pipe.

Insulating the pipe helps. Wind blowing through cracks can get surprisingly powerful. In such cases it’s best to apply some “Great Stuff” expanding foam sealer to stop the drafts.

Rudi Kiefer, Ph.D., is a professor of physical science and director of sustainability at Brenau University. His column appears Sundays and at gainesvilletimes.com.

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