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Freezing climate pipe issues

 
gardener
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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).
And
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 midnight.plumbing 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?

 
pollinator
Posts: 314
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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
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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!  





 
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I too have been trying to solve the problem of vacant cabin + freezing temps + off grid.  I have a 55 gallon drum indoors that is my source of water that I plumbed into to the bath and kitchen sink.  

My recent improvements:

1.Moved the water line inside (no longer does it travel beneath the house). If frozen it will thaw once cabin is warmed up
2. Using PEX piping since it will not rupture from a freeze
3. I have a drain line; when I leave I close the main valve and open the drain to purge the line

Next I'll incorporate a copper pipe that can pass water by the wood stove so I don't freeze my hands washing dishes with 42 degree water!

So far I haven't had the drum freeze solid, water changes temperature very slowly more volume takes more time (high latency of heat) I visit once a week and get the place up to 70 degrees and that seems to be working.  If you have electricity you can wrap your pipes with that heating element they sell at Home Depot etc.  My solar battery bank just doesn't have enough juice in the winter to keep up.

I hope that feedback helps someone!
 
Rocket Scientist
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Hi Nathaniel;  Welcome to Permies!
Have you considered putting a rocket mass heater in that cabin?
It would use a lot less wood and your cabin would stay warm longer.
 
master gardener
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Location: southern Illinois.
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When I lived in northern Minnesota,  we were able to take off for 3 to 4 days at a time without damage to the plumbing. We had walls that were around 7 to 8inches thick and 36 inches of insulation in the ceiling.  We would heat up the house thoroughly, bank the stoves, and take off. There were always plenty of glowing coals when we returned.
 
pollinator
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My last farm had no dwelling, electric, sewer, road access nothing, when I bought it.

As soon as I had a driveway built enough I hauled up a 70 foot mobile home onto the place and set it up.  I couldn't afford to hook up electric right off so I put in sewer and septic, gravel driveway, parking lot, some outbuildings etc in the first year.  I ran 12 volt battery power in the house that I could easily charge from the dual batteries in my truck at night with an old travel trailer water pump pumping the water from a cistern into the house. I tore an old propane stove out of one of my travel trailers and used that for cooking.  

Our first winter there we got down to -49 F in mid January.  I worked at the local cedar mill that fall and winter and I worked swing shift, it was so cold that January that the hydraulic equipment had to be kept running running 24/7 for the entire month, if we had turned the system off like normal we would never have been able to get it started again until it warmed in February.  Our highs in that month were hitting up to about -12 F and averaged lows of -25 F at night.  We had a major storm and arctic cold blast from Canada that had us seeing lows from -36 F to -48 F for almost two weeks of January.  That was some horrible weather to be working outside in on swing shift let me tell you, especially beings I am ambidextrous and I was the only person on the crew that could run the left handed rail splitter which which was located just outside of the open building so I was directly exposed to "all" of the elements while working.  Come 11 PM at night that was one friggin cold station to be splitting cedar rails on.

That winter I was hearing stories from everyone in town that their houses had frozen water pipes, others had heat pumps that were running full tilt but could only heat their houses to 40F...    My water consisted of an old 800 gallon refrigerated stainless steel milk tank used as a water cistern at that time which was pushed right up against and sealed to the house and my water draw came the through the insulated sidewall of the tank directly through the wall of the trailer and pumped in with a 12 volt water pump from an old travel trailer I had.  I then fed the water directly into the propane hot water tank with one 16 inch hose and then a 12 inch hose split off to connect to the cold water pipes. I revamped a bedroom into an open kitchen and both bathrooms ended up being on either side of the kitchen so all my water plumbing was all contained to a small area of the trailer simplifying the entire system.  My heat was a large fireplace in the tip out section and a small 16 inch square stove that I built myself located back in the wife and I's bedroom whic heated the back end of the trailer.

A dozen people must have shown up out at our place that January worried about how we were fairing with my paraplegic wife on bed rest and 7 young children living in that old 70 foot mobile home out in the middle of nowhere. They were so amazed that we were actually have "zero" issues with the weather where everyone else was having major issues, our house was toasty warm and we had running water unlike so many people in town living in "proper" homes.

I find that in severe conditions the "simpler" the system is the easier it is to keep it functioning properly.

That summer the county came out and condemned the house and gave us 15 days to be out as in Idaho you cannot have minors living in a house that is not hooked up to electrical service.  It didn't matter that we had heat, running water, lights and and the ability to cook and had made it through that severe winter better than most with electrical service.  So I had Clearwater power put electric in to the house which wasn't too bad it cost us $2,800 for the pole, transformer and meter and then I wired it into the trailer.  I never could get the electrical inspector to come out and inspect but nobody ever dinged me on that thankfully.  The funniest thing is that the power went out for up to three days at a time with Clearwater power and nearly every big storm where power is the most important we would lose power.  My old 12 volt system on the other hand was 100% reliable no what...   lol...  
 
John F Dean
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Hi Roy,

You have got to be the bravest ( or something else) person I have ever heard of.  Anyone who faces those temps in a 70 foot mobile home deserves credit.  In my Mn cabin we had sheets of ice forming on the inside walls with cherry red stove.  
 
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