On the House: A winter of harsh maintenance reminders

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A snowy scene along Pine Street. February temperatures were well below normal.

Philadelphia energy expert Hap Haven told me recently he has never received more calls from homeowners about frozen pipes than he has this winter.

And he was referring to calls coming in before Feb. 5, when a snow and ice storm knocked out nearly three-quarters of a million electric customers in Pennsylvania. And there would be more snow and cold to come.

Which means pipes in vulnerable areas of a house - against exterior basement walls or through unheated and ventilated crawl spaces - endured stretches of frigid weather longer than a couple of days.

No one expects it to get that cold here. Based on climate data from 1981 to 2010, the National Weather Service puts the maximum average temperature for Feb. 10, for example, at 43 degrees and the minimum at 27 degrees.

This year, the maximum was 29, the minimum 18. Because standing water freezes at 32 degrees, pipes in colder areas of a house don't have a chance.

In compiling my "Your Place" columns for this section, I'm occasionally reminded that just about everything in a house, except the house itself, comes with instructions. Yet few people read them, and about the same number listen to explanations on proper use.

When Medford real estate consultant Gary G. Schaal was a sales and marketing director for area builders, he'd point out to buyers that hoses should be disconnected from freeze-proof outdoor faucets before cold weather sets in for the season. Any connector left attached to a hose bib can trap water and cause a faucet to freeze.

Typically, after a cold siege, Schaal says, he would get several calls complaining that faucets had, indeed, frozen. When he'd ask if hoses remained attached, there would be stunned silence on the other end of the phone line.

Older people tend to pay more attention to maintenance issues than younger ones, even though many are no longer physically able to clean gutters and downspouts before winter sets in, to deter ice damming in the melt-freeze cycle that often causes interior damage.

Whenever I'd suggest that it was time for those chores, children of elderly parents would complain that they had spent a weekend day cleaning the gutters because "Mom said she read it in your column."

Marilou Buffum, now with Berkshire Hathaway Home Services Fox & Roach in Chestnut Hill, sold me my house in Mount Airy, then sold it for me 14 years later.

Correctly discounting my protests that the hallway I'd started painting 13 years before would be finished "this weekend," Buffum added that we often stop noticing the things we should have taken care of at the beginning that have a way of reappearing during a home inspection.

An inspector may not notice the exposed pipe against an exterior wall that could be at risk, but it might be something you should deal with now that the idea is fresh.

Wrapping a pipe or slipping a piece of foam insulation between it and the wall might solve the problem, and at less cost than a burst pipe. You can do the same in a crawl space.

Sealing leaks from the outside and from colder areas into warmer ones is perhaps the best way to keep utility costs down.

After a year in her Havertown twin, Elisabeth Flynn asked my advice about making her house more energy-efficient.

She's had contractors in who made suggestions, but wonders whether someone should do an energy audit to determine where the chinks in the armor are.

Good idea. Check out www.pahomeenergy.com or www.njcleanenergy.com.

 


aheavens@phillynews.com

215-854-2472 @alheavens