Imagine walking into your home after a winter holiday away, only to find a soggy carpet and a burst pipe.
Fortunately, this isn’t a major concern in the mild winter temperatures of Seattle, but that doesn’t mean that you can skip all fall plumbing maintenance and winter hazard control.
While freezes are uncommon in the Emerald City, they aren’t unheard of, and can come about suddenly if you aren’t prepared. There are also other unique winter issues in the damp northwest – including mold – which proper plumbing care can help avoid.
Fall is the time to perform some annual maintenance.
Not only will this maintenance protect you in the event of an unexpected freeze, it will also ensure your plumbing performs properly over the next 12 months so there are no surprise issues that could damage your home and drain your wallet.
Understanding the Chances of a Chill
With an average winter low that is well above freezing, most people in the area don’t even consider the threat of winter chills. This can be a big mistake, since ice storms and freezing temperatures do sometimes hit the Puget Sound area.
A surprise overnight freeze can be the tipping point for plumbing.
While the short term freezes that are most common in the area aren’t likely to cause an interior pipe to burst, they can result in other issues, including bursting pipes near or on the outside of the home.
The following are the most common freeze issues:
- Blown sprinkler lines – Water remaining in the lines is more likely to freeze, expand, and burst the line simply because sprinkler lines aren’t installed deeply into the ground. Lines on top of the ground, such as drip systems, are even more likely to suffer issues.
- While it isn’t very likely that a short term freeze will cause outdoor faucets to completely burst, there is a chance that the rubber washer can become damaged. This will lead to a slow leak later on.
- Although uncommon, a dangerous extended freeze is possible – especially if you live in some of the outlying areas in the Cascade foothills. The best defense is to be proactive and understand your plumbing so that you won’t have to deal with problems once the temperatures go back up.
Fall is the best time to perform this maintenance and take any cautionary steps simply because basic plumbing care fits in well with other tasks for the season, like preparing your lawn for cooler weather. While some plumbing tasks can be done at any time of year, including them with your fall chores ensures they are completed annually and not overlooked.
Winterization Tasks for the Seattle Area
Now that the reasons are clear for winterization in the mild Pacific Northwest, you may be wondering what the steps are to complete it. Winter plumbing guides for other regions aren’t very helpful because advice like using heat tape on pipes simply doesn’t apply in this area.
Fortunately, the cautionary steps you need to take are much simpler, and many only require basic maintenance each year after the main task has been done. The following is a checklist that will help you plan out these tasks.
Outdoor faucets are where a short Seattle freeze is most likely to cause damage. Preventing this is relatively simple.
- Locate your main outdoor shut-off valve and turn it off. This should cut off water to your outdoor faucets and sprinkler systems. Depending on your plumbing, you may have multiple outdoor valves that will need turned off.
- Remove hoses and detachable sprinkler heads or timers from the faucet. Drain these of any remaining water and store them indoors, such as in a garage or shed.
- Place an insulated cover, available from any hardware store, over exterior faucets and spigots. This minor insulation is generally sufficient to protect the faucet from any minor freezes the area is likely to undergo.
Much like faucets, exterior pipes are also the most exposed to winter freezing. This is especially true if the pipes are on the north side of the building or exposed to chilling winds. Exterior pipes on buildings that aren’t regularly heated, such as a garden shed or garage, are also going to be more prone to damage.
Shutting off the water may only be possible if these pipes aren’t used at all during the winter months. Otherwise, a better option is to simply wrap them in pipe insulation. These are insulated tubes that are slit up the side so you can wrap them around the pipes.
In the event of an extreme freeze, as an emergency measure you can turn on the faucets connected to the pipe so they are dripping slowly. Moving water takes longer to freeze, so this will help prevent a frozen pipe during the average Seattle freeze.
Another area where winter damage is common is your irrigation system. The following tips can help you avoid problems:
- Turn off the water to the sprinkler system – You can usually find the faucet valve control box inside a utility box cover placed somewhere in the yard. Turn each spigot in the box fully to the off position.
- Remove exterior drip lines from annual beds and drain out the water from inside of them. Coil these up neatly and store them in your garage or garden shed.
- Cover permanent drip line installations with a layer of mulch or a piece of landscape fabric. This will provide insulation against minor freezes.
- Open the backflow valves on your lawn sprinkler system so that the excess water drains out. It’s rarely necessary to have sprinkler systems blown out in the Seattle area, although you can have this task done if you wish or if you live near the Cascades where deeper freezes are more common.
Drainage issues around the house are often of greater concern than actual winter plumbing leaks. This is due to the heavy rainfall that is common in the area during winter. Proper grading and drainage around your property is your best line of defense.
Grading requirements around foundations vary depending where you are located in the area. Near shoreline or riparian areas, for example, you may need to consider up to a 45 degree grade to ensure water properly routes from your foundation. Further inland or on high ground, a 2 to 10 percent grade may be sufficient.
Along with grading sometimes comes the need for proper drainage around the foundation so that water in the soil doesn’t pour under your foundation or into your basement. Consider having drain tiles installed. This is a perforated pipe that encircles your foundation. Gravel is then layered on top of the pipe. Water collecting around the foundation drains into this pipe, which is then routed to a drainage ditch or into the sewer system away from your home.
Gutter systems also tend to overflow during prolonged winter rains. Fortunately, there are several steps you can take in the fall to prevent this issue.
- Choose the right guttering – A seamless system is less prone to leak. Make sure you purchase the widest and deepest gutters that are available that fit to the eaves of your home, as well.
- Clean out the gutters after the main leaf drop in autumn – Scoop out all debris inside the gutters and rinse out the downspouts so that water flows freely. If you have leaf guards installed over your gutters, make sure no debris has gathered on top of them.
- Check for leaks on a dry day – Using a hose, run water down each gutter and downspout. Check for any water leaking from the exterior of the gutter systems. If you find a leak, dry the area and apply a silicone caulk to seal it.
- Add a downspout extender onto exterior downspouts – Make sure these extenders route the water at least four feet away from the foundation, preferably towards a downward slope the water doesn’t simply flow back toward the home. You can find extenders that fold upward when not in use so that you can easily mow around them.
Another option to consider with your gutter system are downspouts that drain underground and into a pipe. This pipe drains into the main sewer system instead of dumping the water onto your property. This is especially helpful in areas with a high natural water table where the ground tends to become boggy.
Outbuildings that aren’t used often can pose a major concern.
Garages, sheds, guest houses, and studios are common examples. This is especially true if these buildings are typically left unheated during the winter months.
A single hard freeze that lasts more than a day can cause major problems. Although this event may be rare, it is best to be prepared.
- First, consider turning off the water main to the building when it is not in use – If there is no water in the pipes, the likelihood of them freezing is low. After the water is turned off, open all faucets in the building. If a freeze does occur, the open faucets will allow for the expansion of any moisture left in the pipes.
- If shutting off the water isn’t an option, then vigilance is key – Keep an eye on weather reports. If a cold front is expected, turn on the heat to the building. You can set it low. 50 degrees is usually enough to avoid any cold weather plumbing problems.
- For unheated buildings you will need to be a little more hands-on if a freeze is expected – The exposed pipes under sinks that are mounted against an outward facing wall are most susceptible. Wrap these is pipe insulation in the fall. Then, if you fear a freeze, open the cabinet door so air can circulate. Open the faucet to a slow drip since moving water takes longer to freeze.
If a faucet freezes regardless of your best efforts, don’t worry. Simply leave the faucet open and allow it to thaw slowly. Don’t blast it with a blow dryer, since this can lead to more trouble.
Usually a pipe that undergoes a mild freeze will thaw with no problems, although you will want to check it for leaks afterward.
The Main Drain
One of the biggest concerns in the Seattle area during the winter months is going to be your home’s main drain or sewer pipe.
The lush greenery and coastal weather comes at a price – rapid plant growth that usually blocks drains.
If your drains are already draining slowly or backing up, chances are you have a blocked drain already. Even if they aren’t, consider having them checked and serviced before winter and saturated grounds make drainage problems even more common.
Here are the biggest things to consider when it comes to your sewer line:
- Tree roots are always seeking water, and sometimes the nutrients found in sewer pipes, and will grow into the joints of the pipe. The result is a mass of roots that catch debris going down the drain to create a large clog.
- Consider having a drain line camera inspection if you haven’t had one in a few years. The inspector will send a camera down the line to look for blockages from roots or debris. They can also check the state of the drain line to see if it needs any repairs or replacement. It’s much more pleasant to have this work done in late summer or fall, before the wet winter weather appears.
- Clean out the drain line. You may need to do this once yearly if you have a lot of trees on your property or growing near the drain line. You can rent a motorized rooter and do it yourself, if you like. These are fed down the drain and then turned on. They twist around and break up any clogs or roots that are causing the blockage. You can also have a professional root out the drain line.
Prepared for Anything the Pacific Northwest Throws at You
Winters don’t have to be harsh to cause plumbing and water issues. Fortunately in the Pacific Northwest, preventing them is more about setting up some basic routines than it is about hard labor every fall.