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Let’s talk Texas – how to prep your home for extreme cold

My heart goes out to the millions of Texans who lost power during extremely cold temperatures yesterday.

What lessons can we draw from this experience so that we can improve our future response to crises like these? I’ll speak to my area of knowledge, which is buildings. However, I have very little knowledge of regional construction practices specific to Texas, so please correct any errors or provide info as you see fit. I’d love to hear lessons from experts on community response, particularly with reference to protection of vulnerable populations. This might be disjointed.

  • Know the location of your main water shut-off(s). Ensure that you can operate it and that it doesn’t leak. 
  • In the event of pipes freezing or bursting, immediately shut-off the main water supply and drain all pipes via the lowest elevation fixture(s). Then return to the burst location and start collecting water. Most burst pipes are on the water supply system so the water won’t stop until you make it stop.
  • My guess is that only a very small number of Texas homes have hydronic heat. However, if you have hydronic heat it will be very useful to ascertain whether the burst pipe is part of the heating system. If hydronic, kill power to the boiler and drain the system via drain valves on the boiler. 
  • In rare cases the waste piping system may rupture in freezing temperatures. This seems most common to areas prone to flooding where elevated houses are the norm and traps are suspended low or below the floor system and tend to freeze. This is the lottery win of frozen piping. Simply stop using this section of the waste system until you’re able to make repairs. 
  • All combustion-based boilers and furnaces will fail during a power outage due to electrical inputs for combustion and distribution. Boilers generally have considerably lower electrical input than furnaces, but neither will work without back-up power when the grid goes down.
  • Portable generator systems that back-up modern furnaces and boilers are hit-and-miss due to potential sine wave problems. Inverter generators address this, but are considerably more expensive. I don’t have a good estimate for the fraction of heating/cooling that won’t work with a standard generator, but would guess that 1/4 of stuff installed in the past decade, especially premium equipment. I would expect almost all ductless minisplit heat pumps to fail.
  • Many combustion water heaters work without electrical power as do most gas ranges/cooktops. Ranges have to be lit manually. These devices can be used to transfer heat to the building. Make certain you have battery back-up CO monitors before you mess with this. Boil water, fill bathtubs and allow the water to approach room temperature. My guess is that the combination of these two has the capacity to put 10-40 kbtu/hr into a home, which will often be sufficient to take homes out of the danger zone. 
  • Power-vented gas water heaters need electricity, but have very low power requirements. I’ve had customers place their power-vented water heaters on an uninterrupted power supply with good results. (This is technically a building code violation, so it’s not something I would provide as a service). 
  • Water, heating, and cooling systems belong on the inside of the building enclosure. They don’t belong in unconditioned attics, vented crawlspaces, or exterior walls. This is a nearly sacrosanct tenet of resilient, energy-efficient housing. In homes that are placed on slabs it can be very tempting to place these things in attics. Doing so should be accompanied by a plan to condition the attic, or at least around the component in question. 

*Edited CO2 to CO.

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  • Comments (88)

    • 4

      Jesse, What Texas is going through is not a first time event. Similiar problems to this coldfront occured with the flooding in Houston area ~ 3 years ago.

      Housing is only one aspect of the problem. Texas mirrors much of the rest of the fruited plain. The vulnurable just cannot live alone and be expected to turn off valves and make repairs. This housing matter relates to transportation and the support systems. The vulnurable cannot get medical care if the car won’t start and rescue vehicles are few and the medical facilities already saturated.

      Abelene, panhandle area of Texas, lost their water supply to customers when electricity was lost. The vulnurable are the ones definitely needing water.  Here, too, the support systems are not present.

      The lessons learned are to stop subsidizing the real estate industry selling homes to those requiring substantial public sector support. Better arrangements can be made for more pleasant living than what’s going on now.

      • 4

        Yup good points Bob, In many places the Water, Sewage, Domestic gas supplies, flood prevention pumps  etc are entirely reliant on (unreliable supplies) of electricity.

        Power goes off , no utilities, no elivators, no phone lines, no cell towers, no street lights, no traffic lights, no intruder alarms (cept for tose with temporary back up batteries)

        In a modern technology reliant and heavily interconnected society the electricity supply should be by far the toughest and most resiliant available.

      • 2

        I wonder how many innocent lifes are lost by desparate texans trying to stay warm by lighting fires and candles indoors.

      • 2

        Internet connections to the US from Europe today are very bad, of seven US sites I use frequently ALL are running slow or not loading at all.

      • 5

        Power stations in TX aren’t winterized, so things like cooling pipes freeze and you have to shut down a turbine etc.  Less than winterized, most steam plants of any type in the south (except BWRs, and South Texas is a PWR) have exposed turbine halls, otherwise they would be insufferable during the summer.

        The thing is, they had a big freeze about 10 years ago so they knew the risks… and for a decade did nothing.  Reminds me of when COVID first hit NY and we found out that they had had an ICU and ventilator shortage for many years and did little to rectify the situation.

        For a variety of reasons, our governments can’t be trusted to keep things running.  But I suspect the audience here suspects this already. 

    • 3

      I edited the title to hopefully make the point of the post clearer for other people. You’re welcome to edit it more.

      Thanks for the extremely helpful tips Jesse! I always learn so much from you.

      • 1

        Thanks! Wasn’t exactly sure where it was going, so that’s definitely helpful! 

    • 3

      Was looking at Twitter today and saw a picture of someone in Texas who had filled their bathtub last night as an emergency source of water in case the water got shut off. They woke up in the morning to a giant ice cube. Their entire tub of ice had frozen solid.

      Makes me think about how many Texans have water storage in their homes in things like the blue 55 gallon drums and are now having those burst from being frozen. I’d always think that my water storage in my home would be safe from freezing.

      So if your power goes out in the middle of winter, maybe drink a few gallons of your water storage so they don’t expand and burst on you. 

      • 1

        Oh hell that does not bare thinking about, Over here in the UK water stored like that is usually dealt with by only filly the drums 3/4 full to allow for ice expansion.

      • 4

        That’s a great solution, but i’m sure many are not thinking that the inside of their homes are going to get below freezing. Before today, I never thought about my house dropping below that level, but will be something to consider and have in the back of my mind from now on.

      • 2

        🙂  Here in the Uk we can and do sometimes get all four seasons in one day, Like yesterday it was bright and sunny yet snowing ???????

      • 2

        I live in Idaho.  We can also experience all four seasons in one day.  I’ve had it snow enough to have a snow ball fight in June. 

        We can see a high of 35 F during the day and dip down below 0 F that night during the winter.  We can have sun, rain and snow all in the same day.

        The weirdest thing is a thunderstorm while it’s snowing.

    • 4

      Changed my post to match the change in the title 🙂    Because so many places have not the best infrastructure for their essential utilities it is even more vital that preppers develop their own free standing independant back ups.  The fact is that in many places it needs ELECTRICTY not only for powering stuff in the house, but to pump water to the house, carry sewage away and to even pump the gas to your furnace, cooker and fire.   Indeed many domestic hot water and heating boilers ( furnaces in american)  Now no longer have gas pilot lights. All now are electrically ignited.

      So if the power goes so does the water, heat, lighting, sewage and gas supplies.

      This is why its best prepper practice to have back ups like Wood Burning Stoves and a supply of fire woiod and kindling,  Portable Camping Toilets, Bottled gas stoves and space heaters, stored drinking water,  Candles and Lanterns, Chem light sticks,  flashlights etc, Portable genny etc.

      Its better to have it and not need it, than to need it and not have it. Personally I know how utterly incompetant many agencies and companies can be, and how little they value their clients…………especially in a crisis. we should NEVER be fully reliant on one source of heat, light, power or water/

      • 4

        I agree.  It is good to have backups for all systems in your house.  Our house is all electric and we have a private well so when the power goes out we lose everything.  We have a septic tank so that does continue to function (gravity fed).

        We have a wood burning cook stove.  We regularly use that to help heat the house and we cook on it most of the time in the cold months because it’s already hot.  The stove also has a water tank mounted to one side to heat water in.  We keep it full so it is ready to use and also add humidity to the air (we live in a dry climate).

        We have several gas powered generators so we can power parts of the house if needed.  We also have a Mr. Heater Big Buddy portable propane heater and keep several propane cylinders filled and ready to use as well as some of the disposable 1 lb propane tanks.

        We store potable water and we also installed a hand pump on our well.  We have many types of candles, oil lamps, hurricane lanterns and various flashlights to use.

        We usually get several power outages each winter from equipment failure in the cold, storms and wind.  We usually get some when the temperatures are sub-zero.  This is something we make a point to be prepared for.

      • 3

        Melanie, Does your hand pump on well augment an electric pump ? If so, when there’s an electric failure from the utility company, what must be done to convert over to the manual pump ?  This type of setup was recently discussed here at forum..  

      • 2

        It is a manual hand pump installed in the well casing so it doesn’t require changing anything to use it.  It won’t pump water into our house but does give us access to clean water from our well. 

      • 3

        Thank you Melanie.

      • 4

        No problem, Bob.  I found a picture of our hand pump.thumbnail_processed

        You just pull the cap off and hand pump water into a container.  Very simple.  I’d like to get a system in place that can produce more water at a faster rate, but this is better than nothing.

        We do have a generator capable of 220 V power so we could use that if we install a shore switch to isolate from the grid for some water usage.

      • 2

        Appreciate viewing picture of pump.  This can help some preppers here.

         

      • 3

        Where they’re allowed I think wood stoves are a great source of back-up heat! Unvented, portable propane heaters are way above my risk threshold. IMO, homes under 3000 sq ft should work towards <60 kbtu/hr of heat fully satisfying the thermostat during the coldest weather (1% design day for technical people, which is the target for most residential HVAC sizing).

    • 3

      You mention using oven and gas ranges for heating, being sure that your CO2 monitors are working.  i understand that this practice is frowned upon, due to fatalities incurred from Carbon monoxide (CO) buildup.  Just wear a warm coat.

      I recall a similar ice storm in Dallas about 1950 – same problems.  It’s called a continental climate – hot in summer, cold in winter.

      • 3

        Good comment! I just realized I wrote CO2 (carbon dioxide) when I should have written CO (carbon monoxide. If anyone can edit my post please feel free to make a correction. My brain is a little fried from more recently focusing on CO2 as proxy for ventilation rates in buildings where people are concerned with Covid spread. 

        I specifically didn’t recommend using ovens partly for this reason, although maybe I should have said that explicitly. Most ovens won’t ignite without electrical power anyway, and it’s more difficult to bypass this feature. However, gas ovens frequently put out a lot of of CO. I’ve personally measured hundreds of ovens, and it’s not uncommon to see >1000 ppm of CO in their exhaust stream. Otoh, ranges generally increase ambient CO pretty negligibly. Regardless, everyone should have CO monitors (hey – CO2 monitors are great too, but for other reasons) that have a battery back-up. Boiling water in a house with a functioning CO monitor shouldn’t be any more risky just because the electricity happens to be off. 

        I overall agree with the warm coat advice. However, allowing temperatures to even approach freezing inside most buildings has the potential to induce some fairly catastrophic failures. In addition, it seems probable that some populations won’t fare well in extreme cold. 

    • 3

      I’m in Texas and this is truly a historic event. I’ve never seen -7° F at my house before.  It’s definitely been a prepping educational experience as well. So far my preps have worked, and thankfully our power has not gone off. We’re expecting ice tonight so depending on whether that’s sleet or freezing rain we may not have it tomorrow. 

      My house is not a “normal” Tx house because it’s old…1911 built on pier and beam. Most modern houses here are on a slab. My house is totally electric except for the gas stove in the kitchen. I had it moved so even though it originally had fireplaces it doesn’t now. My HVAC is a heat pump so it was 56° in the house this morning. I also have my own well. I don’t currently have a generator for the well, but I will soon. 

      This event is exactly the reason I started prepping. As just an ordinary person I have no control over what the government or the electric companies do or don’t do. I’m going to do whatever I can to make sure we survive it. I think this event should be and hopefully will be a wakeup call for people. The grid is way more fragile than any of us want to think about. It’s one thing for us to be without electricity for a few days or even a couple of weeks. It’s quite another if we were without power for months. 

      • 2

        OldHouseGirl – Do you have insulation that you can wrap your plumbing pipes with? It might help a bit.

        Wishing you and everyone else affected all the best. I hope everyone stays safe.

      • 4

        My plumbing is under the house and yes it’s wrapped I also have insulation under the floor.  We are dripping everything so hopefully no pipe issues. I recently had the house replumbed with PEX so I think we’re good there. I also have 3 of the Mr Heaters (thanks TP for the review!) so we’re good with heat. Just now discovered that water is dripping on the inside of one of the windows in my enclosed back porch. Can’t do anything about that now but it’ll have to be addressed when this is over. The joys of an old house!

      • 2

        Under house plumbing needs to be insulated, but another inexpensive tip is to shield the pipes from the breeze blowing under the house ( if the house is open or just louvred at the base)  , a cold wind blowing under the house can overwhelm  insulation on the pipes.  In our old house we wrapped the pip insulation in self adhesive aluminium foil as a wind break.

      • 3

        People here often finish their basements into recreation rooms. However, due to past years of unprecedented high rainfalls which caused the water table to elevate, many people have removed any finishes from their basements that could be damaged in these events or years.

        What this has meant is that now, people are concerned with heat retention and will insulate and vapour barrier their foundation walls. The floor if finished is no longer carpet, but polished concrete or a waterproof flooring.

        Mobile homes owners who park the homes on lots, cover or “skirt” the base of the mobile home to cover how it is raised up on blocks. They insulate the skirted area to help keep pipes from freezing beneath the trailer (mobile home).

      • 2

        Lesson Numero uno.  Expect the best but prepare for the worst.

      • 4

        Bill, that is absolutely the truth. 

    • 4

      Hi Jesse,

      When I bought my house, the main shut off for my water was buried in the front yard under years of landscaping and yard grading.

      I called the town to have it located and exposed. Then the yard was re-graded so that it wouldn’t get buried again. It is going to be integrated into the front walkway for ease of location.

      There is heat tape to thaw frozen pipes. 

      • 1

        Very Very VERY wise and prudent,

    • 4

      I’m in Texas, and as a friend said, I’m no longer leaning into this adventure.  I’ve already been calling my elected officials from City Council up to Senator about this failure, and I’m attending a meeting this Saturday on lobbying the Legislature to enact ERCOT reform.

      I live in a suburb.  My house is all electric, no gas lines in my neighborhood.  

      My problem is heat.  Our power was out for 34 hours, and the house got down to 44 degrees inside.  Still warmer than some, but not good.  We have a wood burning fireplace, but its built for ambiance and actually makes the room colder rather than warmer.  We are planning on buying an insert this week to fix that.

      We have solar panels on our roof, and 3 Tesla Powerwalls that hold 12 kW each.  We have a heat pump, but it only works above 40 degrees.  It was around 2 degrees Monday, and our furnace pulls 15 kW per hour.  We turned off the furnace and ran a couple space heaters, the fridge, and the wifi router, but the Powerwalls were empty after about half a day.

      After the storm ended, we were able to sweep snow off of half of the solar panels, and got enough to continue running wifi, but we didn’t even plug in space heaters.  It was a cloudy day, and we were hoping to fill the Powerwalls up enough to run the heat for 10 minutes in the evening.

      Verizon’s LTE network went down, so wifi was our only communication.  We’ve got blankets nailed over doorways, and we’re wrapped up in layers.  I’m not really interested in storing propane for a space heater that we use once every 5-10 years.  Any suggestions other than the fireplace insert?

      • 2

        I share your concerns. I’m not in Texas (and I really feel for you folks! ) but here in Canada in an all electric row house, I really wonder what I’d do in a major power outage. Heat is my big concern too…

      • 2

        Hi Mary M, I’m a fellow Canadian. 

        There are some great articles and discussion here to help you work your way through emergency heat option Space heater reviews is one of them.

        Even having some hand and foot warmers like they sell at Canadian Tire or hunting supply stores could help.

        Does your row house have a fireplace or the option to install one?

        There are lots of nice people here who will try their best to help you out.

      • 4

        Sorry to hear this!

        Long term, a better performing heat pump would probably be a good idea, and very complimentary to your existing systems. You current heat pump almost definitely doesn’t have 0 output at 40F, although its output may be reduced in colder temperatures. If your ducts are in an unconditioned attic, you might consider moving toward ductless minisplit heat pumps, which don’t require electric backup and eliminate the attic penalty and consequently have much lower power requirements. Alternatively, effectively sealing and better insulating ducts in an attic often reduces demand for heating and cooling by ~1/4. Imagine how angry Texans would feel if they understood that a substantial proportion of the demand on their collapsing electric grid was due to easily remedied HVAC practices? In addition, many of the reports of crashing home temperatures are at least partly attributable to passive leaks via these duct systems. 

        Feel free to post the model of your outdoor unit and I’ll see if I can post output specs. 

        Good luck!

        Edited typo 

    • 3
      • 3

        Bill, did they say if they have emergency warming stations. Here we open up schools and community recreational facilities to care for anyone in need during a weather event.

      • 4

        Nothing i saw or heard, TBh it sounds pretty chaotic as no one knows what to do.

      • 3

        This on top of Covid-19. You know, Bill, it raises the issue that multiple disasters could happen. I never thought about that before.

        The people there will be in our thoughts.

      • 3

        One image sums it up.

        d466b308ca6f5325c4dacf8dd103bef5 (Large)

      • 2

        Yes, the multiple disasters.  I’m still on call to open our county’s emergency shelter. I manage the medical logistics and some other stuff. The roads are not safe to drive on. So far the public health authorities want to stall sheltering due both COVID infections and the other neglected, but still present, contageous diseases like TB. We do have a large immigrant population here. There is crime and a little of the spillover political disturbances from national politics.

        Some immediate solutions are “offbook” / unofficial. Someone taking initiative is rare but a little still seen.

         

      • 4

        I’m in DFW, and we have multiple warming stations.  I’ve heard Houston has several as well.  Of course the roads are still covered in snow and ice.

      • 4

        Thank goodness Nuqneh. Stay safe and take care. You have many here who care and support you in their thoughts.

    • 3

      First, some good news this morning. I had been wondering if our linemen were going to get in there, did a search and here is the answer:

      Help on the way from across country and Canada

      Back to topic: Regarding prepping for extreme cold.

      Other reading suggest that homes in Texas are not well insulated. This is probably the case for homes in other warmer areas.

      Maybe now it would be wise to insulate even if you live in a warm climate. Insulation keeps homes cool in the heat as well as warm in the cold.

      • 2

        Also edited to add:

        It is important to insulate the roof really well. The greatest percentage of heat loss is through the roof.

        It is still important to insulate walls, but many people don’t know that a poorly insulated attic area equates with a cold house and higher heating costs.

        If insulating the roof, be aware of the correct way to do it, so that the attic space still can “breathe”.

      • 4

        This is good advice! My company has performed well over 1000 energy retrofits. Here’s the mental model I gravitate toward using. In order of importance: 

        • Health/safety/durability. Generally going to fall into categories like water, radon, carbon monoxide, ventilation – both local (kitchen &bathrooms) and the need to provide fresh air;
        • Address duct-work in unconditioned attics. Either eliminate (e.g. replace w minisplit heat pump), seal and insulate ducts (closed cell spray foam), or condition attic;
        • Address duct-work in unconditioned foundation crawlspaces. Most times this means conditioning the crawlspace by insulating the walls and adding a small amount of supply air via HVAC system;
        • Air seal the attic. This is different from insulating and this causes tons of confusion. Think convection vs conduction from your high school physics class. Download guide at bottom right: https://www.buildingscience.com/documents/guides-and-manuals/gm-attic-air-sealing-guide/view
        • Insulate attic. We use a fair bit of blown cellulose. And yes, add baffles at the eaves to provide a pathway for air across roof sheathing where appropriate. 

        In the vast majority of cases, this sequence will be the most cost effective and logically coherent. 

      • 1

        They should but they wont, not until these artic storms become a lot more common in the Deep south. Just like they wont winterise their utilities.

    • 5

      Good morning world, Reports from Texas in UK media say that because of the storm supermarkets are empty, this is causing PRICE GOUGING in TAKE AWAYS, some adding $50 to the cost of a Pizza.  So no power and no food for millions.  THIS reinforces why preppers MUST stockpile food supplies, as well as off grid heating and water supplies. We can ALL learn from this winter storm.

      • 4

        I’ve been sifting through news as well. $474.00 for a hotel room!

        We enacted a law in Canada so that it is illegal to price gouge during a disaster or emergency.

        On a positive note there were also accounts of kind people who distributed food and aided others.

        Tragic events like this certainly do reinforce why preparedness is so important.

      • 3

        Price gouging is illegal in Texas and all of the local media channels have been broadcasting where to report it.  It does occur but it’s rarer than the media fixates on… here is another story – a local gas station was closing for the evening and put all of their bottled water outside for anyone who needed it.  The next morning the owner found $600 stuffed under the door in payments for the water.

    • 2

      Another major winter storm is crawling across the Eastern third of the country Thursday with a plethora of hazards. Heavy rain, thunderstorms and severe weather will be possible over sections of the Southeast and Florida while ice and snow will make travel difficult if not impossible over parts of the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast.

    • 3

      Jesse, all, ref another lesson re driving / roads; It’s not just the dangerous icey roads.  The later rain can melt the ice but there’s still the Mario Andretti wantabe in wrecked car closing rhe road until police (already overworked and stretched thin) and tow truck can arrive.  We do not have that many tow trucks here.  All must note that even in the below freezing weather, a wrecked car is still a hot engine block attached to a pool of a flammable liquid. 

    • 5

      IMO, one huge issue is lax building codes for home water pipe insulation.  Here in north Mississippi, when it gets cold for a few days, many pipes freeze.  Only thing we can do is stream water from every faucet… both hot & cold.  The old way of dripping water doesn’t work when the lows get near zero like we’ve had this week.

      Funny thing is, when we were stationed in North Dakota where -20 or -30, with wind chills of -60 was not unusual, we never even dripped water.  There is no excuse for all homes to not be insulated to handle the lowest temp ever experienced in that area.  Building codes here in north Mississippi should require a home to handle 0 degree temps.

      • 3

        Probably more to do with enforcement rather than the absence of code language. Here’s the section of the IRC that would apply, although it’s not very well written, which might cause individual states to modify or opt out of this section in their adoption of the code.

        People in truly cold climates generally don’t put water pipes anywhere outside of conditioned space. So in order to burst pipes the indoor temperature has to be below freezing. Pipe insulation, heated pipe wraps, and PEX are all good band-aids, but shouldn’t be the primary defense.

        Design temperature look-up here. Geographically most of Texas would be below the line, although not sure how population is distributed.

        https://higherlogicdownload.s3.amazonaws.com/ACCA/c6b38bda-2e04-4f93-bd51-7a80525ad936/UploadedImages/Outdoor-Design-Conditions-1.pdf

        Pipe

      • 3

        Yeah, that screenshot sucked. Code language reads: 

        “P2603.6 Freezing.

        In localities having a winter design temperature of 32°F (0°C) or lower as shown in Table R301.2(1) of this code, a water, soil or waste pipe shall not be installed outside of a building, in exterior walls, in attics or crawl spaces, or in any other place subjected to freezing temperature unless adequate provision is made to protect it from freezing by insulation or heat or both. Water-service pipe shall be installed not less than 12 inches (305 mm) deep or less than 6 inches (152 mm) below the frost line.”

      • 3

        Jesse, we had one of our three external water taps on the house disconnected. Instead we have two wall hydrant taps, one front of house and one at the rear. The fitting that they work on doesn’t require winterization. It is on a long stem fitting inside the house.

        This is a small point considering the magnitude of what is happening, but I thought it might be worth mentioning for later consideration. Sometimes people forget to winterize traditional exterior taps and have a problem in cold weather.

      • 2

        Frost-free hose bibs ftw!!

        Since a lot of Texans are evidently going to be reworking their plumbing in the near term, here are some other tips.

        Consider updating trunk and branch plumbing a pex manifold with home runs. This will allow you to shut off individual runs in an emergency with minimal effort. Individual branches will contain very little water. In homes with circuitous piping or on-demand hot water, consider running an insulated recirculating loop to the manifold. Many on-demand water heaters have controls built in for this (I’m not specifically an advocate of on-demand hot water outside a narrow range of circumstances): https://www.amazon.com/Viega-50243-2-Inch-PureFlow-Manabloc/dp/B008J3TSH6/ref=sr_1_3?dchild=1&keywords=pex+manifold&qid=1613681750&sr=8-3= 

        Gary Klein has written extensively about hot water piping. Mainly with an eye for minimizing wait and reducing energy, but well worth reading. See: https://www.garykleinassociates.com/PDFs/15%20-%20Efficient%20Hot-Water%20Piping-JLC.pdf

        If you absolutely have to place plumbing in exterior wall, ceiling, or floor cavities place them as close to the warm side of the assembly as possible. Then insulate the cold side behind the pipes using polyisocanurate (foil-faced, yellow, rigid foam). Seal all connections with can foam, then seal the drywall to the foam as you install it. Don’t insulate on the warm side of the pipes!!! Think of it as building a foam bathtub around the cold side of the piping. Consider adding return grilles to the inside of the framed cavity to allow warm air to circulate. 

      • 3

        Yep, frost-free is the way to go.  I live in a cold climate (we can reach -20 to -30 f in the winter).  We have have frost-free hydrants in the yard and at the barn and both hydrants on the house are frost-free. 

        With the exception of the kitchen sink all other wet walls are interior walls.  We’ve never had any of our lines freeze and we don’t leave any faucets dripping unless it gets below zero for more than a couple of days.

        If insulated properly it shouldn’t be an issue.

        We have a wood stove that effectively heats most of the house as backup so even with the power out we are okay.

      • 3

        Just feeling the need to shout out to Jesse for all this awesome “how buildings work” content you’ve been giving us. I don’t have time to truly grok it now, but it’s certainly interesting and I’ll reference it again. (Currently, I rent the house I live in, and the house I actually own is in another state, so I’m also not well situated to take full advantage of this type of prepping advice, but that’ll change someday.)

      • 2

        I’m in the northeast so things are set up for harsh weather, but another item to add to your plumbing wish list is a hydrant (hose bib) located at the lowest point in your plumbing system.  We have full basements here so that’s where mine is – very handy for draining the pipes.  Simply shut off the main feed, run a hose from the bib to the outside, and let gravity do the rest.  

        It also doubles as a way to fill water barrels that we store in the basement since those things are pretty much immobile once filled.

      • 2

        Thanks so much! Hopefully comes in handy at some point!

    • 3

      In 1983 in Texas we had a similar event; snow on the ground and the temperature didn’t get above freezing for 2 weeks. I don’t remember electricity being an issue, but that was 38 yrs ago and I’ve slept since then. 😉 However, there is one very big difference. During those last 38 years the population of Texas has literally doubled and clearly the infrastructure has not kept up. As bad as the lost of power has been, the failure of municipal water systems is just as bad or worse.

      I’ve only recently joined the prepper community, but I grew up on a farm and my parents grew up during the Great Depression so I like to think prepping is in my DNA. 🙂 It seems to me that this current crisis is exactly what we say we are preparing for. The first two steps in TP’s list for beginners are 1) Build a solid personal finance and health foundation and
      2) Get your home ready for two weeks of self-reliance. That was exactly what we needed for this event. Just those 2 steps would have saved a lot of people a lot of grief this week. All 254 counties in Texas were under a winter storm warning. There was literally no where to go to get away from it. Yes, there are warming stations, but the roads are impassable. I saw a road crew pass by my house last night with a grader. We don’t have snowplows in Tx. But even if the road is drivable, my driveway is not. It’s way too long to shovel by hand and purchasing a snow blower that I might use twice in my whole life is not practical. Making sure we could survive being stuck at home for a week is. By Monday the temperature will be in the 50’s F with the lows above freezing and hopefully, all this mess will be gone.

      I hope our elected officials use this crisis to determine what changes need to be made to the infrastructure and implement those changes. However, if they all (on both sides) just continue to argue and blame each other then nothing will get done and the next event will be worse.

    • 5

      On two other forums folks from TX and OK are reporting that they have now started investigating their domestic water supplies and most are reporting back that many under house and attic / roofspace pipes and tanks have NO insulation or lagging at all , they are quite suprised and alarmed.   I think sales of pipe foam and lagging is going to be popular in the deep south. which is good of course.

      On the BBC it showed multiple collapsed ceilings in US homes caused by burst pipes that could have seriously hurt people, regretable of course but i was stumped to hear multiple people saying they did not know how to turn off the water in their homes!!!!! and the water was still pouring through ruined homes.

      • 3

        Pipe insulation is the friction fire of building performance. If you find yourself stranded in the wilderness underdressed and without a source of ignition, knowing how to make a friction fire is probably useful. But you might want to think about how got you there.

    • 3

      How deep are the sewer pipes laid in warm climates? I ask, because in Manitoba we lay them below our “frost line”. This helps to keep the sewer pipes from freezing.

      However, several years back during a particularly long-lived polar vortex, the sewer pipes in some parts of Winnipeg froze solid. Winnipeg is our provincial capital and a major city. Even with their existing infrastructure, it was a disaster and in some areas took over a year to thaw and fix the sewer lines for the residents.

      No one ever expected that to happen.

      This only happened in certain areas of that city, but it got me thinking: as part of being prepared we need to know for sure how deep our sewer lines are run on our property.

      I think we also need to watch the unusual weather events for our areas and realize that if it happens once or twice, it is probably going to happen again. We also need to remember that these weather events can get worse and prepare accordingly. Better overbuilt than underbuilt.

      As an aside, we now get heavy rainfalls, the water table changes and you can get hydrostatic pressure in your foundation. I installed a sump pump and back flow valve on my sewer to protect the house. The record breaking rainfalls were billed as: once in 50 years, once in a 100 years and so on. What was important was protecting my home.

      • 3

        From my experience, main water & sewer lines for residences are buried deep enough.  You never see those freeze here.  Pipes in the walls are insulated some, but obviously not enough.  My point is, it should be easy enough to change the specs to ensure water pipes never freeze… at least as long as you have power.

      • 2

        I agree. These should be simple and straightforward fixes. Amend the codes and retrofit.

        I think it’s going to come down to adaptation and anticipation.

        It’s given me much to think about and with respect to how I am triaging some of my preparedness.

      • 3

        According to the code snippet I posted, 6″ below frost line. I’m Canadian by birth, and did most of my carpentry apprenticeship in Victoria. In the US, the IRC is very similar to the provincial codes I remember from BC and ON, although city codes get pretty weird. 

      • 2

        Jesse, as I replied above to Redneck, I think it’s going to be adapt and anticipate.

        Things in Canada have changed a lot with respect to weather. I have family still on Vancouver Island and they are getting worse rainfall and colder prairie style storms.

        We have got to get ahead of the curve.

        Thank you for all the information you have posted, by the way. It has really helped.

      • 3

        The phrase “frost line” doesn’t exist in Texas common vocabulary.  Sewer lines don’t seem to be an issue in this current situation. I haven’t heard of anyone’s drain/sewer pipes freezing ever freezing in Texas.  I don’t think it applies in warm climates. 

    • 3

      We in NZ are not hearing too much about this (unless you listen in to sources from the US). In NZ many use woodburners as a main heating source. We tend to choose solid woodburners over pellet burners, except in a few locations where they are banned due to air quality concerns. If you are resourceful you can scrounge wood for burning, or make briquettes during the summer months. Overall though, in NZ woodburners are the cheapest form of heating and can also be used for cooking during blackouts.

      I thought Beau of the fifth column (politics aside) made some good suggestions for texans re staying warm. Creating a mini shelter in a central room which are easier to keep warm and bringing in items that can radiate heat. 

    • 3

      Put in a pellet stove. They can be easy to install and only need 110 power to run so any generator will work. You have to have the pellets which are in 40 lbs bags or 50 bags for about 250 dollars. Is you have the ability to have a wood stove that would do even better but you have to have a chimney for them. I fire place is useless and you lose heat.

    • 3

      Jesse, while I’m certainly not an expert in construction techniques, I can tell you practices in Texas are primarily focused on managing heat during the summer.  We invested heavily in energy efficiency when building our home.  My roof includes a radiant barrier to reflect as much energy as possible (which is obviously a negative in the winter). The roofs is vented to allow natural convection air circulation and prevent heat buildup from radiant heat.  Insulation is in the ceiling between the air conditioned house and the attic.  Ducting in the attic is insulated.  Water pipes, hot water heaters, and AC/heat in the attic are standard practice (my water pipes are in the ceiling insulation).  We also have double pane windows with low e glass (another radiant barrier).  It works – my electric bill in the summer is lower than the winter with electric heat. 

      And then this crazy winter weather happens… fortunately it worked well enough for us.  Without any heat, our house only got into the low 50’s while friends in older homes and apartments experienced indoor temps in the 30’s. 

      • 2

        Glad to hear that you’ve emerged (largely) unscathed! It definitely makes sense that Texas building practices would be focused on cooling and not heating. Radiant barriers can work really well in hot climates, as can reflective roofs, or even opting for a light shingle color. On the other hand, while roof ventilation can be effective at mitigating moisture problems and cold climate ice damming, it’s not very effective at reducing attic temperatures. 

        In spite of its ubiquity, placing ducts in unconditioned attics is a poor practice, and antithetical to the ideals of preparedness and resilience. The performance penalty for placing ducts in unconditioned attics ranges from 10%-45%. And it’s not just an energy efficiency penalty, these systems require ducts that are larger, and higher capacity heating and cooling equipment. They also have more problems with indoor air quality and relative humidity. A few years ago when I was doing a lot of testing I would often find duct systems that lost >25% of their airflow to leakage. Good times.

        Within building science there is fair bit of literature evaluating the extent of the penalty, and mitigating its effect. 

        https://pdfs.semanticscholar.org/bed8/1440aab2d4a656df0f4212dfe22c4ca44c6b.pdf

        https://www.nrel.gov/docs/fy13osti/55876.pdf

      • 1

        Thanks for the reply – I didn’t realize roof venting plays a part in managing moisture, I’ll have to look into that and your links.  Water and humidity are another big issue for the eastern half of the state where I’m at (the west is a desert).  I have to run a dehumidifier from fall to spring when the temperatures are nice and we don’t need to run the AC/heat much.  Our winter is normally mild and very wet. 

        I hope to build/buy another house in about 5-7 years so this is good info.  Unfortunately I learned from the first house that you pay a steep penalty for unconventional building practices (unless you find a contractor willing to let do it yourself).

    • 2

      I really do think people (especially preppers) overcomplicate things.

      I grew up in an unheated house. We had an open fire in the living room and the kitchen was off that and provided extra heat when cooking. Many times I can recall waking up with Ice on the inside of my bedroom window. I didn’t die, but it did make me a very fast dresser! 

      Anyhow, I digress. From this personal experience I suggest reducing the amount of space you are trying to heat. If you have a small room, move in there. Put extra insulation up at the window, and the entry door. I have heard no mention of the good old fashioned hot water bottle. Any naked flame will produce heat as it burns you must be careful to use things safely, use candle lanterns, hurricane lamps even canning jars to keep the candle or tealight in. Hurricane lamps are better stood in large baking trays in case of leaks or tipping.

      Vent the room from time to time cuddle up together under blankets or sleeping bags. wear a hat. Try and keep everyone in the same room, body heat will help to keep the room warmer.

      Regarding water, it’s not as simple. either have a rainwater collection system or a store of water. 

      Considering the stupidity of some people, I should also recommend a CO detector.

      Over the years, I have done all of the above and come through extended periods of minus temps in a British winter where plus temps rarely rise above 7 degrees celsius. 

      On another note, it looks like it’s about time the infrastructure of the US needs some serious investment to update it.

      • 2

        You reminded me of my renovation. I have a reasonably average house in NZ and the one thing our houses are known for us being cold, uninsulated and minimum standards. One of the things I added were honeycomb blinds, which of course trap heat in, but can also keep heat out. They are considered best value for money for window insulation. For those who don’t have funds, the cheap option was bubble wrap on the window. Added to that can be window blankets that fill up  the frame. That what people on low incomes make do with. 

        Our City Council (local government) has a eco home advisor and he provides free assessments and information on improving your home in a green way. There us also a curtain bank to provide curtains for low income families. 

    • 3

      I think the most important thing I learned during this disaster is when to leave.  We knew the storm was coming, so on Saturday we got groceries, brought extra firewood inside, fully charged the Powerwall, etc.  We woke up on Monday with no power.  Not unexpected, its a blizzard after all.  We piled on layers and managed our battery power.  We nailed blankets over doorways.  We had plenty of preps for food and water.  Our wifi went out when the batteries were empty, and cell service had also gone out.  We got a ladder and broom to sweep snow off the solar panels to try and get some power for wifi.  We were able to contact friends and family.  My mother-in-law, who lives out of state, checked on the power outages, but there were no estimated uptimes.

      Some friends had power, some did not.  The ones that did reported rolling blackouts that lasted 15 minutes, then 45 minutes, then their power did not return.

      When the inside temp was in the 60s, we built a fire in the fireplace.  Our fireplace is designed to vent the heat up the chimney, but we could huddle around the hearth and play board games with our daughter.  We piled extra blankets on the bed and the 3 of us piled in.  I was confident the power would come back overnight, and Monday would just be an annoyance.

      We woke up Tuesday morning and it was 44 degrees in our house.  Luckily a friend nearby had power, but no water.  We took jugs of water to her place and stayed there.

      On Wednesday night, 2.5 days after the outages and blackouts started, while the temps were in the single digits, the power company gave an estimated uptime:  days.  People were advised to seek someplace warm.

      One friend moved his family into a hotel Monday morning, when he saw that the firewood he planned to use all day for heat was nearly gone by 11 am.  He got one of the last rooms in the hotel.

      Friends who waited until Tuesday morning could not find any hotel rooms at all.  Some had to drive over 60 miles, on snowy, icy roads, to stay with friends or family.  Luckily they had gassed up their cars, because gas stations either had no power or were empty.

      As preppers we like to be self-sufficient, and we like to think we can handle anything.  But sometimes the right move is to go find help.

      • 2

        This is true!  We live 20 miles from the coast and always evacuate for serious hurricanes.  Riding them out is a miserable and frightening experience regardless of how well prepared you are.  In this case we prepared for the cold weather and possible ice, but had no expectation of how bad it would get.  It wasn’t until Tuesday that it became clear how extensive the power grid issues were and by then it was too late to leave.  My lesson – some disasters will catch you unexpectedly and you need to be prepared in advance to deal with them in case you can’t leave.

        I agree that the power companies information was worthless – they didn’t explain the source of outage or give any useful timelines.  Watching the outage numbers on tracking websites was the best source of information.  Our county hovered around 91-92% outage until Wednesday.  While they were refusing to commit to a timeline of restoring power on Wednesday, the outage steadily dropped to about 4% Thursday morning.

      • 2

        Nuqneh –

        Your account of the time line you and your family faced is an excellent example of how events can unfold during a crisis. You employed common sense and good coping strategies.

        You have reminded us of a very important point: We are preppers. We are not invincible. Thank you for reminding us that sometimes we need to “go find help”.

        There are heat powered fireplace fans, that don’t require electricity or batteries to operate. The move the heat generated by the wood fireplace into the room. Here’s an example:

        Heat Powered Fireplace Fan

        Part of my prep is to always full tank of fuel and reserve in gas cans because without electricity there is no fuel. Or, due to panic, lengthy lineups for fuel can delay rapid escape in an emergency or limit distance travelled away from it.

        A warm vehicle to shelter in and for travel to safer location. Windows should be kept open in a running vehicle due to carbon monoxide concerns. This article highlights how to do it safely:

        Winter Storm and Auto Safety

      • 2

        Appreciated reading this, Nuqneh,

        Evacuations are one of my EM subjects. I start my class with a couple of examples. In the 1930s, at Naval Air Station Lakehurst, New Jersey, there was a lighter than air blimp (other names not accurate are derigible, zeplion [sp]). One of these balloons lost their power plant and the mooring cables were not properly secured to the ground.  A sailor grabbed a cable helping the collective effort to save the unit aloft.  All but this one sailor let go of the lines.  This one sailor did not and was lost over the New Jersey shoreline.  He didn’t know “when  to let go”. 

        The non natural peril example is the evacuation of Einstein and Freud from continental Europe. They knew when to evac.

        The prepper, who is really prepared, factors in evacuations in planning.

        Again, appreciated reading above and also you introducing this to the forum participants.