Common Winter Plumbing Problems

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frozen spigot and pipes

The serene beauty of Seattle’s winters is often accompanied by a host of seasonal challenges, especially when it comes to plumbing. The persistent rain and the occasional dip into freezing temperatures creates a perfect storm for all kinds of common winter plumbing problems. 

As pipes become susceptible to the elements, the likelihood of disruptions in your home’s plumbing system increases significantly. This invites questions such as does cold weather affect washing machines? (If properly insulated, no!) And can frozen pipes cause drain clogs? (A frozen pipe can burst, which is more problematic than a clog, and we will address this possible scenario in detail below.)

At Bob Oates Sewer & Rooter, we understand the complexities of winter plumbing woes. With years of experience in handling the common winter plumbing problems faced by Seattle residents, our team of experts is adept at not only fixing the issues but also helping you prevent them. As you cozy up in your home this winter, it’s important to be aware of the potential plumbing pitfalls that could occur.

This blog post is an invitation to all homeowners to stay informed about the most common winter plumbing issues and the preventive steps you can take to avoid them. So grab a warm drink, and let’s dive into the intricacies of winter’s plumbing and heating and how Bob Oates Sewer & Rooter is equipped to ensure your home’s plumbing system withstands the cold season.

Frozen Pipes

As the mercury plummets in Seattle, the risk of pipes freezing and bursting skyrockets. This leads to several common winter plumbing problems, and is a consequence of water’s unique property of expanding as it freezes. And it leads to homeowners in the Pacific Northwest wondering about everything from how to protect outdoor spigots to whether cold weather can affect toilet flushing.

This expansion puts tremendous pressure on pipes, regardless of strength and material, which can lead to blockages, cracked pipes, or worse — a catastrophic burst. 

The aftermath of a burst pipe is often serious, with the potential for extensive water damage to your home’s structure and personal property, mold growth, and a costly clean-up and repair process.

Signs of Frozen Pipes 

Signs of frozen pipes are sometimes subtle but can escalate quickly. Initially, homeowners may notice reduced water pressure or a complete cessation of water flow. Visually, frost accumulating on pipes you can see may be a telltale sign, as well as any bulging, which means water has frozen and expanded within. Small fissures or cracks might also appear, which are serious red flags indicating the pipe is compromised and at risk of bursting.

Seattle’s climate poses a particular threat to both exterior and interior pipes. Exterior pipes, including hose bibs, irrigation lines, and pool supply lines, are especially susceptible due to their direct exposure to the frigid outside air. These pipes are typically less insulated and can quickly freeze once temperatures drop below the freezing point.

Interior pipes are not immune to the cold, either. Pipes running through unheated interior spaces like garages, basements, and attics, or those within exterior walls, can also freeze under the right conditions. Even pipes under cabinets or in closets can be at risk if they are adjacent to exterior walls with inadequate insulation.

Mitigating the Risk of Frozen Pipes

For exterior pipes, the risk is heightened during the night when temperatures typically dip lower. Properly draining pipes for winter should be taken seriously. If these pipes are not fully drained and insulated before the cold sets in, they can freeze and cause issues. 

This is particularly pertinent for Seattle residents, as the Puget Sound proximity can lead to sharp temperature fluctuations, which can cause rapid freezing and thawing cycles that are particularly hard on plumbing.

For interior pipes, keeping the interior of your home at a consistent temperature is key. Many people lower their thermostat at night to save on heating costs, but this can be the opposite of savings if it leads to a burst pipe.

Open cabinet doors can help warmer air circulate around plumbing, especially where pipes are located in cabinets against exterior walls. For pipes in basements or attics, additional insulation may be necessary to keep them from freezing.

In the event that a pipe does freeze, knowing how to clear a blocked cold water pipe can prevent further issues and potential damage. In this case, dip some towels in warm water and try gently thawing the pipe.

Other Things to Watch Out For

The likelihood of frozen pipes increases in homes that are poorly insulated or where the heat is turned down too low during the winter months. In Seattle, where older homes may not have the modern insulation of newer construction, the risk is even greater. It’s crucial for homeowners to recognize the unique needs of their plumbing systems based on their home’s age, location, and construction.

Preventing frozen pipes is a matter of understanding the vulnerabilities in both exterior and interior plumbing and taking proactive steps to mitigate these risks before the cold weather sets in. This approach is essential, given Seattle’s unique climate, to avoid the headache and expense of frozen or burst pipes.

Preventive Steps to Take

Exterior Pipes

  • Drain and disconnect garden hoses before the first freeze.
  • Use faucet covers to insulate outdoor spigots.
  • Seal any gaps or holes near outdoor pipes to prevent cold air from reaching them.

Interior Pipes

  • Keep your home at a consistent temperature day and night, which is also beneficial for your toilet’s flushing mechanism in cold weather.
  • For pipes in cabinets (like under the sink), keep cabinet doors open to allow warm air to circulate.
  • Insulate pipes in unheated areas, such as basements or attics, with foam pipe insulation.
  • If a cold water pipe is blocked, apply gentle heat to the frozen section using an electric heating pad or towels soaked in hot water to gradually thaw the ice.

Clogged Disposals and Drains

The festive cheer of the winter season often means lots of cooking and feasting, which translates to increased usage of kitchen sinks and garbage disposals. This heightened activity will avoid seeing a sink drain frozen, true — but all the kitchen time may lead to more frequent and severe clogs. 

Disposals are not designed to handle everything. Common culprits for clogs include grease, which solidifies in the pipes and captures other debris; bones, which can damage the blades of the disposal or become lodged in the drain; and fibrous materials like celery or potato peels, which can entangle the disposal blades or form clogs.

All That Delicious Food Can Be Rough on the Pipes

Holiday cooking can exacerbate these issues as fats from hearty meals and baking find their way down the sink. Moreover, in colder weather, these substances solidify more quickly, creating stubborn blockages in your home’s plumbing. Furthermore, guests may not be familiar with the proper way to use the disposal, leading to improper items being discarded in the sink.

Even drains without disposals are at risk. Without the mechanical action to break down food particles, these drains rely solely on water flow to carry away waste. This is less effective and can lead to build-up over time, which is often noticed when it’s too late and the drain is already clogged.

Bottom line: regular drain cleaning is a preventive strategy, something to keep in mind especially as the winter months set in. The inconvenience of a clogged kitchen sink or disposal can put a damper on your holiday festivities and may even result in an emergency call to a plumber for drain clog removal if not addressed promptly.

Preventive Steps to Take

  • Run cold water before and after you use the disposal.
  • Avoid disposing of oils, grease, and non-food items in your sink.
  • Regularly clean your disposal blades by grinding ice cubes and salt.

Sump Pump Failures

Sump pumps play a vital role in safeguarding basements and crawl spaces from flooding, particularly in areas like Seattle where winters can be wet and basements prone to water intrusion. A sump pump failure during these critical months can quickly lead to water damage, mold growth, and significant repair costs.

One common winter issue for sump pumps is the freezing of the discharge line, which is the pipe that carries water away from your house. If this line freezes, the water has nowhere to go and can back up, causing the pump to work harder and potentially overheat or fail. 

Another problem is power outages, which are more common during winter storms. Without power, a sump pump will cease to operate unless it’s equipped with a battery backup.

Sump pump failures can also result from a lack of maintenance. Over time, sump pumps can accumulate debris which can obstruct the float mechanism that triggers the pump’s activation. If the pump can’t activate, water can rise unchecked and flood your basement.

Preventive Steps to Take

  • Regularly inspect your sump pump’s discharge line to ensure it is not frozen or clogged.
  • Install a sump pump backup system in case of power outages.
  • Consider a sump pump with built-in freeze protection features.

Water Heater Issues

Water heaters are subjected to increased usage during winter as people take longer, hotter showers and may require more hot water for holiday guests or for heating purposes. This can strain an older water heater, potentially pushing it past its limits.

Common issues with water heaters during the winter include the buildup of sediment in the tank, which is exacerbated by increased demand for hot water. The sediment can reduce the efficiency of the heater and cause it to work harder, which may shorten its lifespan. The cold water entering the heater is also colder, which means it has to work harder and longer to heat the water to the desired temperature.

Other Strains on Water Heaters

Additionally, water heaters may need repair if they are experiencing thermostat and heating element failures. Inconsistent water temperatures or a complete lack of hot water could be signs that these components are malfunctioning. These problems can go from being a minor inconvenience to a complete system breakdown if not addressed in a timely manner.

By understanding the added strains placed on water heaters during the colder months, homeowners can take proactive measures to ensure their systems are well-maintained and prepared to handle the increased load.

Preventive Steps to Take

  • Flush the water heater tank to remove sediment build-up.
  • Inspect the pressure relief valve to ensure it’s functioning properly.
  • Schedule annual maintenance with a professional like Bob Oates Sewer & Rooter to extend the life of your water heater.

Professionals Are Here to Help!

Winter in Seattle can be harsh on plumbing systems, but Bob Oates Sewer & Rooter is well-equipped to handle common winter plumbing problems — and we’re happy to share plumbing tips for the winter so you don’t have to call us if tips alone will do the trick!

With our professional suite of services, Bob Oates offers annual maintenance checks crucial for preempting issues like frozen pipes, clogged drains, and sump pump malfunctions. Our drain cleaning services are particularly effective for preventing the clogs that become more frequent with winter’s increased kitchen activity.

When it comes to more severe issues — like frozen pipes or water main repair — Bob Oates utilizes innovative solutions like pipe relining or trenchless sewer repair, avoiding extensive damage to your property. 

We emphasize the value of professional maintenance, not just as a remedy but as a preventive strategy to ensure the efficient operation of your home’s plumbing systems. This approach is essential in avoiding the costly damage that winter can inflict and in maintaining the safety of your home. 

The Bob Oates team is a family-run business with over 20 years of serving our neighbors in Seattle and all throughout the surrounding communities. With licensed technicians who have undergone rigorous training, you can trust that your plumbing needs are in capable hands with Bob Oates. Contact us anytime!

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