Monday, December 16, 2013

Cold and snow, pipes and frost

On Friday night the thermometer dropped well below zero. We're not sure how far below because all our outside thermometers have stopped working. Then late Saturday it began a cold fine powder snow, until we had a good solid foot on the ground.

Maine can be like that. Thermometer-breaking.

I've been making regular trips to our various basements. Since we moved the on-demand hot water heater to the new extension's bathroom, and re-routed the main water supply so that it first enters the house at said bathroom, I've been concerned to get all the frost protection right.

I had thought that the new basement crawl space might be cold, because the concrete foundation wall there is only a foot deep at its shallowest point, where it hits bedrock very close to the surface. But I tested the temperature in there Thursday, after several days of very cold weather. It was still 43 degrees F over by the entrance, which is forty feet from the nearest source of man-made heat, the kitchen wood stove, and isolated from said source by two inches of foam board. The conclusion was, the temperature down there is the soil temperature, and it's just not going to freeze this winter. I had wired a light bulb to the joists, just in case, and was ready to turn it on and leave it on for the winter, but there was no need. The high level of insulation and air sealing I'd used was working very well indeed. Score one for building design success.

Here's what it looked like before we built a building on top of it:

The rest of the news is less good. From the new crawl space the water supply now enters the new bathroom, where the on-demand hot water heater is located in a chase in one corner, along with the various stop valves (nb: stop "cocks" in British English). It then runs inside the walls, which are very well insulated, until it reaches the kitchen sink. Here's what that looked like before the drywall went in:

That's when the problem starts. From the kitchen sink to the old bathroom the water supply runs through the old kitchen crawl space to the old basement. The old kitchen crawl space is heated by the uninsulated floorboards, which themselves are heated by the wood stove. There is also an eight-inch uninsulated hot air duct running along down there.

But the old basement is another story. We've insulated all the heat ducts and removed a propane hot water tank-type heater. It's now about ten degrees colder than it was when we had an active propane burner down there. I tested the temperature with my handy dandy little ray-gun "laser" thermometer. In one spot where there was an air leak through the old wall it was 12 F. Over by the pipes it was only 36 F.

Ouch. Too close for comfort, that!

Off I went to get a heat lamp, which after a quick installation, rapidly brought the temperature up ten-fifteen degrees in that corner. If I get time later today, I'll wander around down there with a can of spray foam and block off some more holes. I've been blocking off holes down there for years, but it's a very old building, and the rubble foundation wall wasn't particularly well-made when it was new. The old stones shift and move with the frost. Blocking of holes never ends. You can see why I was anxious to get the water supply entrance to the house out of this space.

This is the Maine life. You spend a lot of time worrying about home sealing, insulation, and heat. Even in the mid-summer, when we built that extension crawl space, we were worrying about frozen pipes. But, for once, all the worry paid off. the new water entrance to the house is a lot more protected, and fail-safe, than the old.

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