Frozen Pipes: A Chicago Treat!

Frozen Pipes: A Chicago Treat!
Running water won't freeze. Urban legend?


A busted copper water pipe

Landlords, be on your guard.  It’s definitely that time of year.  Frozen pipes can be a major inconvenience when temperatures drop into the teens and single digits.  Busted pipes and the flooding that results can be devastating.  I had a situation once where my plumber counted 15 breaches and said my pipes “looked like Swiss Cheese.”

This was a common situation for Chicago landlords two years ago during the Polar Vortex.  Many owners were caught off guard due to record low temperatures persisting for days and weeks at a time.  By today’s date in 2014 we were already deep into our cold snap.  We had humbly accepted the new nickname for our fair city—“Chi-beria.”

In 2015, people braced for a repeat of the winter before.  Thankfully a lot of owners were well prepared.  In addition last year’s conditions were slightly less brutal.  For these reasons there were fewer stories circulating about this particular landlord headache.  This year’s winter season has brought much milder temperatures and a later start to below zero wind chills.

But please don’t let your guard down.  Frozen pipes can still happen at higher temps and over shorter periods of time.  It happened to me just last week.  Fun! 

Let’s just say, if given the choice, I would NEVER, NEVER, EVER again buy a frame building with a crawlspace in a harsh northern climate.  Oh, did I forget to say “NEVER?

Bear in mind that frame buildings with crawlspaces are usually sold for less than brick structures with basements.  One reason is that crawlspaces often contain exposed water pipes and can be notoriously difficult to insulate and heat.  It can be done but it’s often expensive and tough.  Both processes are required–you can’t just insulate without heating and you can’t just heat without insulating.  Also you shouldn’t fully/permanently insulate because you have to allow for ventilation in summer months.

Heat tracers to warm a copper water pipe

Heat tracers can be used in some cases.  These are heat cables that can be wrapped around pipes and connected to an on/off switch.  The strips can be switched on when temps are expected to drop.  This option is often used for mobile homes and other living spaces where the pipework is compactly situated.  Installation can be expensive, though. The drawback is this option does not work as well when the network of pipes is spread out over a distance.

Another situation to monitor is if you have any vacant units during harsh winter weather.  Special care must be taken to protect against problems.  Remember that heat rises, so a vacant unit on a lower floor is particularly vulnerable.  I fully understand the temptation to try to save on heating costs by choosing not to run the furnace in an empty unit.  But this is a gamble where you can lose big.  It’s not worth it.  Take it from me.


The kitchen sink in one of my vacant units as ice started to form.

The kitchen sink in one of my vacant units as ice started to form. A morbid, slow motion adult science project

I had a vacant first floor unit during the Polar Vortex.  The departing tenant’s unauthorized gas usage caused Peoples Gas to place a lock on the meter.  I was unable to keep the unit properly heated in the several days until my scheduled re-connection appointment (we’ll discuss the risks of using space heaters in another post).

Imagine my horror as the ice got thicker and thicker, forming a delightful stalagmite at the base of the trickle.

Imagine my horror as the ice got thicker and thicker, forming a delightful stalagmite at the base of the trickle.

I kept the water running at a trickle but the kitchen sink still got as cold as the inside of a deep freezer.  The splashing water formed a thick coat of ice around the edges of the sink and a tall icicle started to form at the base of the trickle.  I stood next to the Peoples Gas man and we stared at it in morbid fascination.  It was like a tragic, slow motion adult science project.  He said he had never seen anything like it.  It can get that cold inside an insufficiently heated unit.  Because of the unusually extreme conditions the pipes eventually burst anyway.

The “trickle method” is a precaution you often hear this time of year (even from the City of Chicago). This is when you leave faucets dripping or running at a trickle to prevent freeze-ups.  The theory is that water can’t freeze if it’s in constant motion.  I asked a licensed plumber if he thought this was good advice and he was lukewarm on the idea (pardon the pun).  He said, “I know the City unofficially recommends it.  You can do it if it makes you feel better, but even waterfalls freeze.”  Touche.

Though the experts can’t agree, it does indeed make me feel better so I’ll keep doing it.  Yes, it bothers my green conscience to waste water, but much MORE water would be wasted if the pipes burst while I’m away and flooding goes on for hours unnoticed.  Compare it to the gas we waste when we have to warm our cars in the morning.  It’s the environmental price we pay for trying to tame near artic conditions.


A handy reference

Check out this American Red Cross article to see at what temperature you should start to take precautions, this article for the safest way to thaw a frozen pipe before it bursts, and this article on five ways to prevent them in the first place.

 Have you ever lived in a building where the pipes burst? 

How did it affect you?

Be the first to read new Urban Landlady blog posts. Type your email address in the box and click the “create subscription” button. My list is completely spam free, and you can opt out at any time.

Leave a comment