Alright; stop, grab a seat, and listen…

It was COLD in Texas.  REALLY cold. However, with simple planning for reliability, Texans could have possibly prevented multiple pipe-freezing failures that are continuing to plague many as we thaw out from Winter Storm Uri.  Hopefully, my story and observations of our collective pipe-freezing situation will remind us of the importance of reliability planning.

Growing up in Colorado, spending my fair share of time in Canada, as well as other parts of North America where winter temperatures frequently stay below freezing temperatures, I learned pipes freeze.  It happens.  However, what we just saw in Texas during Winter Storm Uri was a unique event, at least to the extent I can opine in the last 30+ years.

Shall I provide some context before I start making rash generalizations?  I live in Houston with my family.  My home emerged from this weather-pocolypse unscathed, thankfully.  My father-in-law’s place, which is 20 minutes away from my house, in Katy Texas… well, that is a different story.  His home was built in the 1970s.  It is a two story, split level home, with a sunken fireplace and a raised kitchen.  It is odd, but I love it. 

When his house was built, like most during this building era, it was constructed for the harsh Houston summers and the snowbird winters (which are great).  Our Houston homes are built with basic insulation and designed to release the heat and retain the air conditioning.  The farther north you travel, the more this is opposite.  North of the temperature wall, houses are built to retain heat and protect from the cold. Now, there isn’t a large difference in how these homes are physically constructed, but there is a difference in the type of insulation and/or how much insulation is used. Water pipe installation is done differently as well.

As an example, in Colorado, water pipes are protected from the elements. They are either protected by the insulation within the walls where the pipes are routed or by individually wrapping the pipes with insulation.  Pipes may freeze in Colorado; however, it tends to be in locations where these pipes are uninsulated. Areas where pipes are in contact with the foundation or where conduction cooling of the outside temperatures can cause pipes to freeze. Pipes isolated within an outside wall where there is little to no insulation (i.e., garages, basements) also are trouble spots for freezing.

In Gulf Coast Texas, it’s different.  Water pipes can largely wear their birthday suit, due to the warmer climate.  These pipes can be uninsulated, roam free (to code of course) within an attic, crawl space or wall, and deliver their contents without much insulation protection.  In single story or split-level homes, 20+ years old, water pipes may travel through the attic or crawl space above the insulation that is protecting the living quarters of the house.  Such pipes are exposed to both the attic temperatures, which can reach local outdoor temperatures, and the temperatures radiating from the ceiling below- warm in the winter and cooler in the summer.  Due to the style of many Texas homes, homeowners  may not be able to access parts of their attic.  Oftentimes, these attics or crawl spaces average two to three feet of space, with only the insulation being on the floor of their attic. Combine that with roof beams, joists, two by four beams, wiring, plumbing, and any leftover goods from construction (we found magazines in my attic from when the house was constructed in 2001!), it makes for a tricky space to navigate.

Let’s get back to my personal experience.  At my father-in-law’s home, we assumed that we took the proper precautions for the upcoming freeze.  Outside, exposed water pipes were properly insulated.  Indoor, accessible pipes were insulated.  We reduced the inside temperature to reduce the load on the power grid but to stay plenty warm for living. We also turned off most lights and unplugged extra electrical accessories to further reduce the power grid load.  BUT…we did not check the attic crawl space above the kitchen, and for good reason. The only way to access this location is by climbing onto the roof and opening a vent at the apex of the roof which is sealed, caulked, and screwed into the siding.  Not only is this a lot of effort, but it is also a bit destructive.  This opening would have to be reinstalled and re-caulked after accessing. It’s safe to assume that only the extra-motivated people (who love a good project) would be willing to spend their day gaining access to their attic, crawling around in their crawl space to find uninsulated pipe, and then insulate it.

Winter Storm Uri was forecast to hit our area on Sunday afternoon, February 14. Houston would see temperatures drop below freezing and would remain below freezing for anywhere from 36 to 48 hours, with lows in the teens for some areas.  This is very atypical weather for Houston, but it’s not unheard of. Houston has endured record lows in previous years. There’s usually at least one week of cumulative cold; at or near freezing temperatures during the winter months collectively, but not all at once.  Living in Houston, cold weather is a nice break from the heat. It’s when we get to wear long sleeve clothing and not instantly sweat.  I’ve often laughed at how acclimatized I am now because I can’t wait to break out the flannel shirts when the temperature dips below 70F. It’s a passion and a calling to wear flannels, as it takes me back to my Colorado roots!

Back to the storm…  Much has been made about how the Texas power grid couldn’t handle the power demands of the entire state cranking up the thermostats and firing up their electric blankets.  The available power supply and how the power grid was managed is another story for another time, but its safe to say plans didn’t work out the way the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) had hoped.  The issues with the power grid created a forced blackout which impacted my father-in-law’s home at 8:30pm Sunday night.  He was without power, and ultimately heat (and we failed to supply firewood or even test his gas assisted fireplace) for the next two to three days.  His power was not restored until late Tuesday night or early Wednesday morning (we do not know exactly, as he came to stay with us).  By Monday morning, water had stopped flowing to his house due to freezing pipes, as we knew the water supply had not been cut to this area.  This prompted him to turn off the main water line at the street in an attempt to avoid any issues.

His pipes froze.  His pipes burst.  And like the countless others, we are managing repairs with limited plumbing supplies at our local big box stores. We are at the mercy of yet another supply demand curve.  This could have been easily prevented, and I feel silly for not considering this before Sunday night, Valentine’s Day, 2021.

What happened?

  • We know that Texas homes are built to release heat.  The releasing of heat helps protect the uninsulated pipes in the attic. This heat release should maintain a temperature in the attic above freezing under most winter conditions in Houston.
  • Historically, most homes in Houston only lose power for a few hours. Also, most power outages occur during hurricanes or other summer-time storms, where the outside temperature is warmer than freezing…which is nearly all the time!  Thus, losing power due to a winter storm is not typical; especially when outside temperatures are below freezing. 
  • The forced power outage by ERCOT with durations longer than 3-4 hours caused uninsulated, exposed pipes to freeze due to the extreme outside temperatures. This loss of power caused many water pipes to freeze because there was no protective radiation heating emanating from the insulation.

What have we learned? 

This situation emphasizes the need to plan for reliability and ensure that the correct layers of protection are in place to protect your home or business. If it has happened once, it can happen again. 

What could have been done?

Homeowners and business owners could have prepared to prevent their pipes from freezing if they understood that the combination of power loss, pipes full of water, and loss of heat was a real possibility. 

In thinking about the perfect storm of no power, full pipes, and no heat, I could have done the following for our father-in-law’s house:

  • Stored water, turned off the main water line and drained the house lines.
    • No water, no freezing pipes.
  • Gained access to the attic crawl space and insulated the pipes.
    • With insulation and the loss of heat, this could have slowed the freezing effect on the pipes but would not have completely prevented the freezing.
  • Purchased firewood and tested the gas supply (and chimney) for the starter assisted fireplace to maintain house temperature.
    • Maintaining a heat supply to the pipes which would help prevent freezing. Slightly impractical now and difficult with an older, wood sourced fireplace.
  • Purchased a generator and fuel supply to generate electricity to heat the house.
    • This is the modern fireplace.  Could work, but it is expensive.

Reviewing the situation and analyzing the solution is a highly valuable exercise as a homeowner.  It not only helps me understand where my weaknesses are about freezing pipes, but it also allows me to help my friends, family, and neighbors to protect our pipes in the future.  Mother Nature is unpredictable.  As we thaw out here in Texas, remember the importance of reliability planning. As Benjamin Franklin said, “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure”.