Square One Inspections
Frozen Pipes: My experience.
Updated: Feb 15
Luck. Its real. The first week of February 2023 was a cold one in Maine. While only for a few days, temperatures were 20° or more below zero at times. For many, it simply meant a bit more fuel to stay comfortable. Most stayed closed to home to keep an eye on things. We all heard stories of pipes freezing over the weekend.
Fast forward just four days after the lowest temperatures were reached. It was warm. So warm, in fact, that it prompted a brief conversation between me (the home inspector) and the buyer when we met outside the home for a standard home inspection. This particular home was vacant and just far enough from the owner that they hadn't been there for a few days (maybe longer). We'd find out later that the owner cancelled automatic oil delivery, believing the home's tanks were full. More on that later...
The Home Inspection
The home was approximately 100 years old and well cared for. Just a few owners during its considerable life but you could see it was well managed. After inspecting the basement systems, the attic, and much of the first floor, the inspection was entering its final stages with a sigh of relief from the buyer and a smile from their realtor. Other than a furnace and water heater (same system) that needs to be confirmed as operable once fuel is available at a later date, the second floor was one of the final things that needed to be inspected. The home's only bathroom is on the second floor...
Outside the home, I was amazed how warm it felt in the sun. It felt like 50°. When we first arrived at the vacant home, it was cold inside, but hard to gauge the interior temperature as we all had our coats and boots on. Its not uncommon for a vacant home to be set at 50° like this one. Indicator lights were visible on the furnace and the oil tank was pretty low, but not showing as empty. When the furnace burner wouldn't stay on for more than 10 seconds, it was clear the tank was out of fuel and the gauge was broken. A phone call between agents had a fuel delivery within the hour.
During the oil delivery (its a pretty loud process), I was climbing the stairs and noticed drops of water falling from a suspended ceiling tile that were not there just 10 minutes before. There was a small puddle directly below. This area is where the front porch roof meets the front of the house. Leaking roof, perhaps? Nope. Peeking out the bathroom window, there was no snow on the metal porch roof. I lifted the toilet cover: Frozen. Like, drive your car on the lake frozen. The leak was coming from the register to the left of the toilet in the photo below. Frozen pipes. Burst pipe. Hopefully just one.
I shared this with the agent and the buyers. We all scrambled to find any containers in the vacant home to collect any water before it caused damage to the wood floors. A few bowls and refrigerator crisper trays got it covered. We then headed to the basement where we discovered four or five new spots pooling on the basement floor. Each leak originated at a supply of every baseboard register on the first floor. Every register had a burst pipe. Ugh. Just 20 minutes before, the entire basement was dry. If the inspection was scheduled for later in the week, the owner would be dealing with 6" of water in the basement and significant water damage throughout. Again, pure luck.
Water Expands When It Freezes
Copper pipes are no match for expanding water. You may have heard that keeping water moving in pipes will keep it from freezing. Yes and no. Keeping water flowing will help when you have a supply of city water, for example, at a constant temperature coming from the source. If the water freezes in the pipes before it exits at a faucet, you're out of luck. That's what happened here. Water in the furnace was still circulating even though it was out of fuel. Being out of fuel stops the boiler of the furnace from heating water. Electricity was still supplied to the furnace, allowing the circulators (water pumps that push water to the registers) to send water to each register. Every time it went through the loop of registers, the water in the pipes got colder as the temperature in the home declined. Finally, likely when the outside was at its lowest, the inside was also below zero and the water eventually froze.
That's not the end of the story.
After another agent-agent call, we were asked to disable the water at the water meter in the basement to stop bringing water into the home. Every home has (or should have) a primary disconnect to shut off water to the home. Square One Home Inspectors point this out to every customer in the event their dishwasher goes haywire, not expecting frozen pipes. The disconnect location is something every homeowner should know. Unfortunately, older disconnects from the 50s (See photo) don't function as well as newer ones and sometimes fail. As we attempted to shut the water off...it failed. Water started spraying at the base of the disconnect. No more water was entering the pipes as the disconnect worked, but the leaking now posed another risk of flooding the basement. Next step: call the city water department. They need to disconnect the water at the street to stop the leaking.
As the water continued to thaw and drip from each register and a leaking valve made a mess of the basement, the very nice oil truck driver descended the stairs to offer to get the furnace going.
Side note: If you run out of oil, getting more fuel is not enough. The furnace fuel supply line needs to be bled get the fuel to the burner. The fuel line is currently full of air, not fuel. Bleeding the line isn't hard, but takes some experience. The driver has that experience.
Fortunately, we all agreed that getting the furnace back up was not a good idea until we had the leaks repaired. The registers are damaged and leaking (problem 1) and full of ice (problem 2). Having a warming basement with a working furnace could make that ice melt faster (problem 3) causing more leaking (back to problem 1) and ultimately flooding the basement (problem 4) as there is no drain or sump pit/pump. The driver gladly went on his way, not wanting any part of this mess.
The fantastic women and men of the Anson and Madison Water District showed up about 30 minutes after the listing agent called (you gotta love small town Maine). After several attempts to locate the street shutoff under two feet of snow and even more of a snow bank, they left. What? Left? Yup. Fortunately, they came back with a plow truck to remove the snowbank. After another 20 minutes or so of looking, they found the street shutoff.
Now, where were we?
Water is off at the street so we only have to deal with water currently in the pipes.
Any melting ice in the pipes is draining via the basement washer supply lines. As they are the lowest valve opening, gravity is helping us remove water to a sink instead of leaking upstairs.
The furnace is off (look for the red switch at the top of the stairs). Why? Without water, the furnace could be damaged if it find a way to work again now that it has fuel. It would be like heating an empty teapot. Not good for the furnace.
The furnace circuit breaker is turned off in the panel (as a backup).
The plumber is scheduled to arrive the following morning. Same day would be better, but it was already 4pm. The plumber will need to find and repair each split in each pipe so the furnace can be run again. The buyer needs to know the system is functional before they buy.
Everyone has something to learn from this little adventure:
Don't be so anxious to sell the home that you forget to manage the home as you would if you lived there. Keep subscriptions and services going until the keys have been exchanged. Keeping the oil tank full would have avoided this.
Stop in weekly, if not more often, to a vacant home. If too far, arrange for a neighbor or a service to do this for you.
Visit more often during weather anomalies: high winds, extreme cold, etc.
Share the above with your client and maybe a horror story or two for incentive
Answer every call. This listing agent was fantastic as she answered every call from the buying agent throughout this ordeal.
Don't be afraid to ask for help. The buying agent didn't know where the shutoff was and needed to ask. This isn't uncommon. My 20 year old son would have no idea. That isn't a knock on the younger generation as my 52 year old sister would be in the same position. The inspector is there. Ask for help.
Take charge: This is your client's potential home. Its easy to dismiss this as the other agent's problem. Stay and manage the problem until the listing agent or seller arrives. The agent in this case was amazing and determined to fix the problem. As a newer agent, they started this career on the right foot.
Thanks for reading,
Matt and Matt