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Freezing climate pipe issues

Posts: 1282
Location: Okanogan Highlands, Washington
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This content came up in a different discussion, so I'm giving it its own thread.

In climates where it gets substantially below freezing, sometimes it seems like if you want indoor plumbing, you have to choose between supporting the big mean utility grid, or never going away for a few days in winter.

A lot of folks dream of heating with wood, and growing their own food, but still want to shower and run a washing machine instead of hauling bath water around.

Neighbors and house sitters, or good drain and winterize options, or automated heat /heat tape ("energy slaves") are critical for protecting untended modern homes in very cold climates. If you like to travel midwinter, your home needs a different level of protection.

Some people think if you have wood heat, you can't leave in winter. If you also have livestock, it may be simplest to have a reliable person stay on the farm at all times anyhow.
But we don't keep stock, and we have heated with rocket mass heaters for the past 13 years or so.

We lived in the Okanogan Highlands, travelled some part of almost every winter for 7 years, and had 3 pipe freeze failures. (Four, if you count the trailer that one of our assistants lived in, which he left untended in deep winter to house sit for someone else.)
The thing is, only one of 3 pipe failures occured while we were gone.
Most times, we had family living nearby who ran the stove every couple of days for us. One time, something came up- I think it was medical? and we were all gone at once. That led to dripping when we returned, and then shutting off the house water for long enough to replace some shattered PVC pipes near the shower.

The other two pipe freeze events were due to:
1) the way the exterior run was put in the first place (far too shallow for the climate, because it had originally been under a manufactured home crawl space).
2) a well house pressure switch freezing up during a winter repair job; the pressure found a weak point of a prior repair, resulting in 6 hours of work as we had to.dig out the mud to get to the pipe before it froze.

I should give full credit here to Ernie's dad, who did most of the original work, maintenance, and emerency fixes, sometimes with our help.
And to local well repair savior Fred, who has not had a day off since his boss died, because he doesn't say no to emergencies like ours.  
His boss died in a car wreck the summer that drought followed a super deep, dry winter freeze. Our wells were #18 and 19 on their list of emergency repairs at that time. I wouldn't be surprised if overwork and fatigue were a factor in the accident, though nobody has said so.
Fred came out and re drilled our main well in the evening; he was doing his assigned customers in the day and his bosses' workload at night.

Plumbing is a good and vital trade to learn; if you can bear the workload, and bear to charge what your time is worth, it could even be a good living.
Given that a good plumber who follows local codes, frost depths, etc. can save you re-doing the work 3+ times, as well as prevent future emergencies that might cost more than your time, they are probably worth at least 3x your typical hourly wage.

Hard-freeze climates and shallow granite bedrock raise the difficulty of DIY plumbing to a whole new level. A few of our neighbors just more or less gave up on fully automated indoor plumbing all winter.

Instead, off-grid-ish folks may use indoor cisterns which can be filled with temporary hoses and pumps on warmer days, then drain and store those things indoors until next time. Most have a backup option to haul water from a frost free or well house spigot to the house.  

Underground cisterns are somewhat protected from freezing, esp with good perimeter insulation. The well water itself usually comes up at 50 degrees or so, so in large amounts it holds enough heat to stay liquid for a while. One family whose well never produced enough water hauls potable water from a neighbor to their own cistern; they drink boiled tea more than raw water.

Same freeze problems apply to outflow; two other neighbors had house-to-septic lines freeze last winter. They still has indoor running water, but no indoor drains.
Septic is harder to retro-fix, because the drain needs a specific angle to carry solids to the tank,. So if the system is too shallow, you more or less would have to raise the ground level, or rip out and reinstall the tank.  In both these cases, the too-shallow line goes under a driveway or carport, which adds inconvenience and expense to altering the ground level.  If it was just a backyard line, a couple feet of wood chip might be the cheapest fix.
The warmth of the water itself, toilet flushing, and the periodic warm water from showers, dishes, etc. seems like an important part of septic/drainage maintenance in cold climates. I'm told it's also critical to keep solids flushing well and/or cleaned out, as a partial clog can be a starting point for water to stagnate and freeze.

Some mountain folks do still use outhouses, or composter toilets, or trailers with tanks or chamber pots to empty, whether or not they have a septic system. County requires septic for permitted occupancy, so most go that route sooner or later.

Those whose plumbing works reliably in our climate mostly have wells drilled by local, experienced drillers, with insulated and heatable well houses for pressure tanks, switches, etc.

The pipes from well (or city water) to buildings are at least 5 feet underground. Irrigation systems and frost free hydrants mostly have their valves and drains about 5 feet down too. (The farm irrigation district winterizes its system every year, and doesn't provide water from October thru March most years. Our fire district winterizes all trucks that won't fit in the heated hall.)

Once the pipes emerge under the house, many folks either heat the pipes in the crawl space under the floor (heat tape is common). Some design the house to reduce the exposed pipe, maybe bring the pipes up directly into a heated home or shop utility space thru insulated slab floor, well inside the building perimeter.

If I was designing again for this climate, I'd like to make the primary wet wall relatively central in the house, back to back with the masonry heater.  I might also provide a shop space with a floor drain and frost free spigot on the downhill side of the house, and a way to drain the rest of the house in case of prolonged absences. Perimeter plumbing may be easier to work on, or to drain away leaks, but it sucks for winter freeze protection.

Trying to design solar hot water collectors and rain harvesting systems in this climate is very challenging. State of the art involves several years apprenticeship, usually engineering to set workable system goals and capacity, and then high tech, thermostatically controlled drainback systems, expansion pressure relief, as well as insulated and glazed collector box housings.  

Water harvesting from precipitation is more or less seasonal; any year round gutters, tanks, and filters need to be indoors, deep in the ground, and/or able to tolerate freezing at all exposed surfaces.  Temporary rain barrels, or greywater-like systems that harvest water primarily for gardening without a lot of filters and compications, can be easier to deal with and repair.

Speculation about other extreme, frost-prone climates:

Desert people get really good at recognizing and cultivating melons, cactus, and moist fruits and tubers... I wonder how much of our absolute daily needs could be met with biologically filtered water?  Soups, teas, fruits and salsas are hydrating.

I wonder if once you get up to permafrost territory, where ground temps average below freezing, if indoor plumbing is even worth the struggle. It's going to be an expensive and technical undertaking.  I imagine most people hire experts if they want it to work.

For off grid living, you might just get used to water in winter being something you store in solid form and bring to the kitchen to melt, like chocolate sauce or butter for popcorn.

What I notice in a lot of traditional cultures is, once a need or convenience gets expensive enough due to local conditions, you often see a "village" version.
A village Baker in areas with scarce firewood, where you bring your dough and pay a little to have it baked; the oven is way more efficient that way.
Most farmers here use a butcher/meat packer rather than set up their own slaughter and cool rooms for a few uses a year. It simplifies the hygeine issues. But electrical is cheap enough that most families have a big freezer.
Due to all the water challenges mentioned, most mountain folks in our area use the laundromat for at least a few months or years, while sorting out their own plumbing.  Some just go that route for long term. And many live with extended family or friends, a few little households per property, where they can share a well, garden or livestock care, a jaccuzi, or other conveniences.  Neighbors' helping each other is also common.  These arrangements don't always work perfectly, or forever, but they are valuable enough to be worth attempting and preserving.

City water and sewer are a larger scale version of this. It takes technical expertise to run them, but that expertise also helps avoid the terrible costs of disease and poisoning of the aquifer under everyone's wells. For larger settlements, water is definitely worth doing right.
In most urban areas of the US, it's legally required to go on city water and sewer within city limits, and the costs are charged to the citizens one way or another. Drainage of storm water, snow removal, and ditch and gutter maintenance usually also get organized at the city level.

Does anyone have experience with off grid homesteaders that decided to go village style, instead of rugged individualist, to pool their skillset and labor power?

Or with traditional villages, for that matter, creating particularly clever local infrastructure?

Posts: 151
Location: Yukon Territory, Canada. Zone 1a
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You nailed it Erica: Dawson City Sewage woes

I'm at the 61st parallel and along with an outdoor 'long drop', we do have indoor plumbing- and a propane wall heater in the 'basement'. We leave the thermostat set to 10*c to prevent freeze up. That being said the pipes to the septic system are unheated, but buried deep. We try not to disturb the snow above the pipe routes in the winter, any insulation is good insulation when it hits 45 below.

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I have radiant floor heat, and one thing I like about it is, I can just leave the system running, but not run the boiler. Because antifreeze reduces efficiency by 10%, I never put any in my system, but flowing water does not freeze anyway, it does not matter.
Erica Wisner
Posts: 1282
Location: Okanogan Highlands, Washington
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That's an interesting comment about flowing water not freezing.
We certainly get ice on flowing streams and rivers here, though they don't freeze over until much later than ice hits elsewhere. So it can freeze.

And we certainly have good effects from running a pipe at a trickle of we're in super deep cold. But there's an extra element in that trick that I think most people don't think about; the trickle of water is coming from the source, usually at 55F, or 50F, or 10C, or whatever your average ground temp is. So it's warmer than any ice in the pipes! Liquid water is almost always warmer than any water in the vicinity that is trying to freeze (brinecicles excepted). So almost by definition, if you have flowing water, it isn't frozen.  

I believe there may be some physics that makes flowing water slightly slower to freeze- but when it does, it tends to freeze fast, as if supercooled.  Dozing ducks get caught with feet in the ice (though that may say more about sleeping duck reflexes than ice freezing rates).

I wonder if your floor system is recirculating the same water, it may not be as well protected as you think. It doesn't have that extra heat from the source. Though the pump probably generates some heat, and much of the floor is not that cold.  But if one side of the perimeter did get close to freezing, or below, it could effectively circulate that cold until it gets cold enough to freeze. I would imagine pipes freezing rapidly in an underfloor hydronic system would create an awful mess.

The source warmth of deep water sources, when contrasted with -20 or -10 air, was explained to me because it is used by orchards trying to alleviate ill-timed frost. They sometimes flood or spray with irrigation water, and run big fans to move the warmer (55 degree) air around to reach all the blossoms.  Spray and fans, not just for cooling anymore!  

I've got no option but to sell you all for scientific experiments. Or a tiny ad:
A rocket mass heater is the most sustainable way to heat a conventional home
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