Extreme Frugal Insourcing: Repairing a Frozen and Burst Pipe with PEX
Have you ever wondered if there’s a surefire way to get your pipes to freeze? Well, wonder no more! You’re in luck because Mr. Frugalwoods and I have uncovered this miraculous and amazingly practical wisdom!
All’s you have to do is go out of town on a weekend when the temperatures are predicted to be sub-zero. And presto! You’ll return home on Sunday night to the glory that is frozen pipes.
As I previewed in our February expense report, quite a few things decided to helpfully break last month around the ol’ Frugalwoods HQ. So many things, in fact, that I’ve decided to launch a miniseries devoted to this excellent topic. Stay tuned for riveting new editions as sundry bits continue to degrade in and around our home!
It Started Innocently Enough…
As you might’ve surmised, this is–unfortunately–not hyperbole. Nope. This tale is drawn straight from real life events at the Frugalwoods abode. Being geniuses, we decided to go up to Vermont for a snowshoeing trip on what turned out to be the coldest few days in Cambridge this year.
But, we’re geniuses remember? And so, we carefully opened all of our sink cabinets, turned the heat to a scorching 67 degrees (up from our usual 62 during the day and 58 at night) and left trickles running from our faucets. This is our standard operating procedure for extreme cold and it has always worked in the past. The operative word there being “past.”
The upside is that we had a delightful weekend tromping through the woods on snowshoes with Babywoods and Frugal Hound. So yay for that! But when we returned home on Sunday evening, I went to wash my hands in the bathroom sink and… no water was forthcoming.
Cue the mild panic. I checked the kitchen faucet and similarly, nothing gushed forth. I raced down to the basement fearing I’d find a foot of water, but mercifully, it was dry. Hence, we deduced that our pipes were frozen.
A Moment Of Angst
In that moment, I’ll be honest with you, we were pretty frustrated–to put it mildly. We’d just driven three hours with a 3-month-old and a greyhound and we were all hungry, tired, and grouchy. Frugal Hound needed a walk, Babywoods needed to nurse, and Mommywoods and Daddywoods were ready for a frozen pizza, a beer, and bed. Dealing with an absence of indoor plumbing really was not high on our bucket list. Our initial reaction was to call someone to come make the problem disappear for us. In the heat (or rather, cold) of stressful moments, that temptation to just pay a problem away is visceral and hard to overcome. But, we took the dog out, fed the baby, ate a snack, and re-grouped.
After gathering our frugal wits about us, we set about performing the patented Frugalwoods pipe warming methodology. This involved opening up the access hatches to the pipes in the basement and then wrapping them in heating pads (including my lavender-scented rice neck warmer), pointing a hairdryer at the offending pipes, and setting up our space heater to do its thing. We were successful in restoring life and vitality to our main floor bathroom pipes. Tragically, one of the kitchen pipes met a different fate: it had burst and when we thawed it out, water sprayed everywhere…
Fortunately, in anticipation of this suboptimal outcome, Mr. FW had leapt into the crawl space where the pipes are located and positioned a plastic tub to collect water. Thus, we were spared the agony of water damage. I was now simultaneously breastfeeding Babywoods (babies do not wait for their dinners) and holding a hairdryer on the pipes as Mr. FW shut off the main valve to prevent additional water from flowing into our meagre collection buckets.
We Called A Real Live Plumber (and then changed our minds)
Following this exciting string of events, we decided to call the professionals. While Mr. FW monitored the unfolding fiasco in the basement, I called a veritable ton of plumbers. Being both a Sunday and an evening, I quickly discovered this would cost us A Lot. Plus, most plumbers were backed up due to the apparently epic number of pipes that’d burst over the frigid weekend. I finally found someone willing to come over that night, but he was going to charge us $350 just to step foot inside the house–a hefty sum that didn’t include any parts or labor.
Mr. FW and I debated the merits of paying a professional for about a minute before Mr. FW decided he’d take a crack at repairing the situation himself. Having not done much plumbing before, he first hit up two invaluable tools in every frugal weirdo’s belt: YouTube and This Old House. You can learn how to do anything on YouTube. Seriously, anything. We’ve used it for everything from giving haircuts to putting up drywall. And This Old House is our gold standard for home improvement info.
An hour later, Mr. FW emerged from behind his computer with a Home Depot shopping list in hand, basic plumbing knowledge, and the optimism of a true frugal weirdo. Thusly armed, he set off to fortify himself with tools and materials.
The Actual Plumbing (boring if not interested in DIY plumbing; wonderful if are; should probably read anyway since it’ll mess up story if don’t… just saying)
For those of you similarly interested in DIY-ing a fix to your own plumbing clustercrap at some point, here’s the rundown on our specific issue.
The underlying problem is that both rooms in our house with plumbing (the main floor bathroom and the kitchen) are built on top of unheated (though insulated) crawl spaces and not over the basement itself. Additionally, the pipes in those unheated crawl spaces run up exterior walls (which are colder than interior walls).
Also, all of these pipes are copper. If you were trying to design an absolutely terrible system for plumbing, you could not possibly make it any worse than this. Whoever installed this plumbing in our 120-year-old house should seriously win a Darwin Award for failed architecture.
When the temperature plummeted to -8 one night while we were away, the cold water pipe in the kitchen crawl space froze hard enough that it burst and when we set about warming it up, water spewed forth. The hot water pipe froze too, but didn’t burst. Both pipes in the bathroom froze as well, but thankfully didn’t burst.
Mr. FW did the following to fix the kitchen plumbing branch:
1) The ancient gate valve on the kitchen plumbing branch would not fully turn off after the pipes were thawed. So, we turned off the main water valve. Mr. FW installed several new ball valves to that branch to enable fully turning off the water to that section of plumbing, which allowed us to turn the water back on for the rest of the house (as it happens, this is pretty crucial for people like me who like to use the bathroom occassionally).
2) He then cut out all of the old copper pipe on the kitchen branch and replaced it with PEX (a type of plastic tubing), which both resists freezing and also tends not to burst when frozen, because it’s cleverly designed to expand. In the interest of future-proofing, he went ahead and replaced both the hot and cold water pipes in the kitchen because why not when you’re already having so much fun?!
3) Mr. FW installed heat tape along the PEX (note: this is heat tape specifically rated for use with PEX) and then wrapped fiberglass pipe insulation around the pipe and heat tape. This is a belt and suspenders approach to keeping it unfrozen in the future. Heat tape is basically an electric blanket for your pipes–it’s a wire that you connect to a pipe via electrical tape. It has a thermostat that senses the temperature of a pipe, and when a pipe gets below 40 degrees, the heat tape turns on. Brilliant!
Additionally, Mr. FW ended up taking apart and cleaning out our kitchen faucet because once the water came back on, it mysteriously wouldn’t flow out of the kitchen faucet at a normal rate. A bit of googling revealed the likely culprit: sediment in the pipe was dislodged when it burst and traveled up to–oh so helpfully–clog our faucet. Rather than spend several hundred dollars to replace our faucet, he discovered that it was possible to take it apart, clean it, and re-install it. Frugal woot!
For our bathroom, since neither the hot or cold lines burst and it would be impossible to re-plumb without ripping apart the tile in the bathroom (not something we want to do), he just ran heat tape along the existing copper pipe and added insulation on top of that.
Several lessons we learned in this process:
1) If you’re not going to repair your plumbing yourself, try to avoid calling a plumber after hours on the weekend (especially following a historically cold night when lots of people’s pipes burst). This’ll save you from paying “emergency” plumbing rates.
2) If you do a project yourself, you can over-engineer it however you see fit (heat tape and insulation!) in the hopes of ensuring you won’t encounter the same botheration ever again.
3) Doing it yourself also means you’ll reveal the nuances of your home’s plumbing systems, which puts you in a good position to deal with future issues. Also advantageous if you plan to take on elective plumbing ventures, such as adding or relocating a bathroom.
4) Know where the main water valve is in your house. If water starts spraying out of a burst pipe and you’re able to quickly turn off the water to your house, that’s the difference between having a puddle to mop up vs. thousands of dollars in water damage. Go find your main valve right now if you aren’t already familiar with its location.
5) Fixing one problem invariably leads to a new problem. To whit: we discovered that our main water valve is an ancient gate valve that now must be replaced. It’ll be a good investment to replace it with a modern ball valve as that’ll provide an “oh crap water is going everywhere” solution for our eventual tenants should a dastardly frozen pipe transpire down the road.
6) Greyhounds and babies are both totally worthless in assisting with a plumbing conundrum. But they both look adorable while doing it!
7) PEX is really easy to install. Mr. FW was pleasantly surprised at how simple it was to work with and he feels pretty confident he could teach a 7-year-old how to do it. I then asked if he could teach me how to do it and, after a pause, he said yes. So that should be a great indicator of its ease of use.
The Tools and Materials We Used
- Mr. FW chose white PEX because he didn’t feel the need to color code our plumbing. Really, he just didn’t want to buy two rolls of tubing. Color is purely aesthetic.
- He used sharkbite couplings to join PEX to the existing copper plumbing in the basement. These things are magic, but are also expensive; so, he only used them on the copper-PEX union.
- For joining PEX, he used the crimp copper ring method with this crimper and these rings.
- Right after the sharkbite PEX-copper union, he put new PEX barb ball valves.
- Then, he ran the PEX up into the crawlspace with a series of 90 degree couplings as needed.
- Once he routed the PEX all the way under the kitchen sink, he finished it off with some 1/2″ to 3/8″ ball valves.
- Other tools used include a cheapo PEX cutter and a small-spaces copper cutter for removing the old copper pipe.
- This is the heat tape he used.
The Double Benefit Of Insourcing (aka why we do these things ourselves)
Although we spent $324.16 on plumbing parts and tools, in our minds this was a far better expenditure than hiring a plumber. Why? Because of the beautiful double benefit of insourcing: not only is the problem ameliorated, but Mr. FW also learned basic plumbing. Plus, we now own plumbing tools that can be used in any future iteration of plumbing predicament.
Another reason it was advantageous to have Mr. FW do the plumbing himself is that we wanted to redeem this mess both for the present moment but also for the future since this house is destined to be a rental property. He did his level best to future-proof the pipes against a similar calamity once we have tenants. There’s also a great deal of pride that stems from extreme insourcing. We don’t just have working pipes, we have a catalogue of Mr. FW’s accomplishments in PEX form.
Insourcing is the ultimate frugal endeavor as it enfranchises us to take on projects, develop new skills, and ultimately save money. The talents we’ve accrued over the years compound our savings because we essentially save money each time we fix something ourselves or perform a task on our own. It’s the paragon of teaching oneself to fish. This isn’t to say that we never pay professionals–we most certainly do in some instances. But, we’re very circumspect about deciding when to do so. The mindset of not automatically defaulting to paying other people is a valuable approach that makes us generally more creative and industrious (and occasionally foolish) frugal weirdos.