Freezing weather holds hazards for Island homeowners

Single-digit temperatures and strong winds have wreaked havoc this winter.

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Ice on a roof can spell trouble for a homeowner. — File photo by Susan Safford

Unusually prolonged cold weather and freezing winds that penetrate even well-insulated houses have created numerous problems for Martha’s Vineyard homeowners. Island plumbers, and even on occasion fire departments, have responded to numerous reports of burst pipes and flooded basements.

One Island plumber told of answering a call at a seasonal house to repair a pipe that froze, then burst, and ran for almost two weeks before the caretaker checked on the house. The water had run down the side of the house and created a small glacier, he said.

On a bitter cold Friday night last week, the Oak Bluffs fire department responded to a call on East Chop. When the first firefighters arrived, there was about four feet of water in the basement.

“It’s not the sort of thing we usually do,” Oak Bluffs Fire Chief John Rose said, “but the resident was elderly and the ground around the house was so frozen the water department couldn’t access the cutoffs. It took us about two hours to pump it out so a plumber could get into the house to shut the water off and fix the leak.”

Water damage from frozen pipes is the most significant wintertime damage to houses on the Vineyard, according to several local plumbers. Water damage can result in collapsed ceilings and walls. It can ruin floors, and create mildew issues that can require extensive renovation.

When it comes to protecting a house from the ravages of winter, the experts advise homeowners to take nothing for granted. Just because no pipes froze in past years, it doesn’t mean it can’t happen, particularly during a hard winter like this one.

Mr. Rose, who is a licensed plumber, recommends homeowners seal up any air leaks in the house to help prevent pipes from freezing. “Check the basement windows. Make sure none have fallen open,” he said. “Anyone who has an unoccupied house that has not been drained should make sure the water-service valve is shut off just after the meter.”

He also recommends installing a remote call alarm that can notify a homeowner when the house gets too cold. “When the house drops below a certain temperature, it can call your cell phone, or you can call the remote to check on the temperature,” he said.

“We haven’t had a winter like this in a long time. We just aren’t used to this kind of cold. In years past, when you could set the temperature at 40 degrees, that was enough to keep a house from freezing. Now with this kind of extreme cold and you get a strong wind with it, it just isn’t enough.” Mr. Rose said houses on the water and those exposed to really heavy winds are particularly vulnerable.

Wind to blame

Living in a house exposed to severe weather near Oak Bluffs Harbor where the winds come whipping in off the ocean caused unexpected problems for Oak Bluffs plumber Patrick Caine, who shares a ground-floor apartment with his girlfriend. Two weeks ago, his girlfriend called him while he was at work when she noticed water dripping from the ceiling of their living room. Mr. Caine traced the problem to a third-floor bathroom, 15 feet from an outside wall, where the hot and cold water lines had both frozen and burst. The water leaked down into a recently renovated kitchen, causing extensive damage, and then into their apartment.

The house, a combination of a 1920s bungalow and more modern additions and renovations, had never had a freezing problem before, he said. “It was strange because the house was heated, and the bathroom wall that contained the frozen pipes was an interior wall,” Mr. Caine said, “I think it was the strong wind that shifted during a day of extreme single-digit temperatures, that made its way through a soffit and came all the way in, freezing the pipes.”

Mr. Caine said that although modern plumbing codes require that there be no water-carrying pipes in exterior walls, where they are more susceptible to freezing, many older houses have exterior wall plumbing. Some Island houses were originally built as summer houses, with little or no insulation, and were usually drained before winter hit. Now many of those houses are lived in year-round, and a cold spell can result in damage.

“I just came from a house where the boiler that heats the house froze and cracked due to the wind and the extreme cold,” Mr. Caine said. “It will cost about $8,500 just to repair the heating system.”

Echoing the warning of Chief Rose, Mr. Caine said, “It is common for people who decide not to drain the water from the pipes when they leave to keep the heat on at 45 or 50 degrees. This is not enough, particularly during harsh winters like this one with such strong, cold winds.”

He said that leaving water trickling from the valves of suspect pipes can also help prevent freezing.

Keep it warm

Plumbing contractor Seth Williams from Vineyard Haven said that some insurance companies now require that the heat in unoccupied homes be kept at 60 or 65 degrees if the pipes are not drained. He said the only sure way to prevent water damage from frozen pipes is to winterize the house by shutting the water off and draining the house. He has winterized more than 80 houses this winter.

To winterize a house, Mr. Williams said, the water service to a house is shut off, and all the pipes and water lines are drained, including washing machines. Toilet bowls and the drain traps of all sinks, tubs, and showers are filled with an antifreeze solution. He said that most new water valves are self-draining when the water is turned off, and they are left open, but there are some that must be drained by hand.

Mr. Williams said that his company recently handled problems at two houses that were heated, but not enough to prevent pipes from freezing. “We just came from a relatively new house that was badly designed, with a heating pipe running up an exterior wall. The pipe burst, causing a lot of damage,” he said. “Another house had a third-floor leak that resulted in damage to the electrical system that caused the heat to fail, which resulted in more frozen pipes, collapsed ceilings, and extensive damage throughout the house, and a basement filled with water.”