Pipes, Pets, and Plants. Surviving Deep Cold in the Deep South.

from airplane overlooking chicago
Traveling back from Pasadena by way of Chicago during Polar Vortex 2014, I often found myself smirking with the knowledge that once we made it home to Hoover, we would enjoy superior weather and would be tooling around in flip flops in no time. We were still hovering self-righteously over the Illinois tundra in a Southwest airplane at the exact moment our water heater pipe burst in our attic, so there was no one at our Alabama home to hear the pop! sound it must have made. There was no one to witness the maniacal spewing of gallons and gallons of water, but one well accepted scientific principle was proven: water always flows downhill.

So now I sit here having sheepishly just tracked sheetrock dust all over my flooded house, writing big checks to cover water remediation bills and waiting for the painters to arrive, and I wonder. What might we have done to prevent all this? Maybe once those hearty northerners stop laughing at us for cancelling school because it was too cold they might help us out with some advice.

If you go by our local news coverage, besides the main danger of keeping all our people healthy and warm during these bitter cold snaps, there seem to be three secondary concerns: pipes, pets, and plants. There are wonderful general guidelines floating around to help people with cold weather preparedness, especially offering the important advice to check on neighbors who may be elderly or disabled. But for the purposes of this blog, I am hoping you will find useful a few specific things I’ve been learning about the three P’s that follow “people” on the list.

Pipes
burst pipe

The first humbling question from our great plumber was, “Did you not have that copper pipe in an insulated sleeve?” Well, I had been worried about all the family members staying in warm sleeves, including the weenie dog, but it never occurred to me that our most vulnerable pipes might appreciate sleeves, too. At a whopping $1.86 at Home Depot, I think it would have been the way to go.

It turns out that when you build a home in Alabama, as opposed to Minnesota, a lot of priority isn’t given toward avoiding placement of water pipes into unheated areas of your home. Especially if your home is built on a slab in Alabama, there is a very large chance that you have pipes in the attic. When a decade goes by with no problems, you may forget to love your pipes.

The Weather Channel estimates that the danger of water pipes freezing in homes usually starts occurring when the outside temperature is about twenty degrees. The next time James Spann tells you it may go below twenty degrees, here are some precautions recommended by the Institute for Business and Home Safety:

  • Seal all openings where cold air can get at unprotected water pipes. It’s especially important to keep cold wind away from pipes, which speeds up the freezing process.
  • Leave cabinet doors open under the kitchen and bathroom sinks to allow warmer room air to circulate around pipes.
  • Let faucets drip slowly to keep water flowing through pipes that are vulnerable to freezing. Ice might still form in the pipes, but an open faucet allows water to escape before the pressure builds to where a pipe can burst. If the dripping stops, it may mean that ice is blocking the pipe; keep the faucet open, since the pipe still needs pressure relief.
  • Pipes in attics and crawl spaces should be protected with insulation or heat. Pipe insulation is available in fiberglass or foam sleeves. Home centers and hardware stores have sleeves providing 1/8 to 5/8 inches of insulation; specialty dealers have products that provide up to 2 inches of insulation. The extra thickness is worth the price and can save a pipe that would freeze with less insulation.
  • Heating cables and tapes are effective in freeze protection. Select a heating cable with the UL label and a built-in thermostat that turns the heat on when needed (without a thermostat, the cable has to be plugged in each time and might be forgotten). Follow the manufacturer’s instructions closely.
  • Exterior pipes should be drained or enclosed in 2″ fiberglass insulation sleeves.
  • Pipes leading to the exterior should be shut off and drained at the start of the winter. If these exterior faucets do not have a shut-off valve inside the house, have one installed by a plumber.

It’s a great idea for every member of the household to know where the main water cutoff valve is for your home.

If nothing else, the science behind the bursting pipes is fascinating. But I would prefer a jaw-dropping controlled experiment to living through the real thing. Any day.

Pets
luigi laundry
The author of this blog struggles to maintain a reasonable perspective of caring for pets during the deep cold. From my own weenie dog, Luigi, the recommendations would be heated blankets, little doggie sweaters, special treats and complete domination of the entire household. We often sacrifice a load of clean laundry from the dryer just so Luigi can nest in happy warmth.

Turning to more reasonable sources for recommendations, it seems there is not an exact temperature at which it becomes dangerous outside for pets, although several good sources have said for puppies, kittens, and old or sick dogs it may be as high as forty degrees. For healthy adult animals the threshold varies widely by breed. However, it is completely false to think that dogs and cats have the innate ability to survive extreme cold. Especially when temperatures go into the low twenties, bringing your pets inside is the obvious answer. Birmingham-Jefferson County Animal Control has a snuggly solution for pet owners, in three easy steps: 1. Bring them indoors. 2. Keep them there. 3. Snuggle frequently. However, if that isn’t an option for you, below are a few guidelines for caring for your own pet during cold weather:

  • Provide Extra Food – Animals that spend time outdoors in the winter require extra food to give them the necessary energy to stay warm.
  • Give Liquid Water – Ensure their water remains unfrozen by frequently replacing the water or using a heated bowl. Avoid metal bowls that tongues can stick and freeze to.
  • Have a Proper Dog House – Straw bedding is better than blankets, which soak up moisture that then turns to ice. The house should be turned away from the wind, or have an L-shaped entrance to reduce wind chill.
  • Help Cats, too – Cats also need shelter outside – a plastic storage bin turned upside down with a small opening cut in the side and bedding inside can work.
  • Watch Closely When Your Pet Is Outdoors – Pets that are not acclimated to the cold may not be able to tolerate it even for short periods of time. Watch your pets to ensure they aren’t showing signs of discomfort or distress while outdoors.
  • Be Aware of Garage Dangers – Make sure that all chemicals are properly stored and spills are cleaned up. Be especially careful with antifreeze, which has a sweet taste that attracts dogs, cats and wildlife but can be fatal in even small amounts.
  • Practice Caution Before Starting Your Car – Cats and small wildlife in search of warmth may curl up inside a car engine. Before you turn your engine on, honk the horn or knock on the hood to scare them away.

Some sites recommend those animal booties, but if you decide to use those on your pets we ask that you video their reactions and share for our entertainment.

What if you see pets outside suffering in the cold? According to the Greater Birmingham Humane Society, the best course of action is to call local law enforcement agencies because these animals are at risk of hypothermia, frostbite and death. Another option is to contact the GBHS cruelty prevention program at cruelty@gbhs.org.

Plants
frozen plant

Homeowners in central Alabama love their plants; thankfully there are enough Southern Gardeners around that there is an abundance of experts who can help you with any specific plants questions. Especially if you like to push our hardiness zone to the extremes and plant lots of sub-tropical plants and half-hearty perennials, you may already be looking at a disappointing spring because of the extreme lows we already experienced. Here are a few general guidelines from Julie Day at Today’s Homeowner for protecting your plants from the cold:

  • Bring Indoors: Frost-tender plants in containers should be brought inside during cold weather. Dig up tender bulbs and store them in a cool dry place.
  • Water Plants: Water plants thoroughly before a freeze to prevent desiccation and to add insulating water to the soil and plant cells.
  • Protect Tender Sprouts: Cover tender plants overnight with an inverted bucket or flower pot, or with a layer of mulch. Be sure to uncover them in the morning when the temperature rises above freezing.
  • Cover Shrubs and Trees: Larger plants can be covered with fabric, old bed sheets, burlap, or commercial frost cloths (avoid using plastic). For best results, drape the cover over a frame to keep it from touching the foliage. Fabric covers help to trap heat from the soil, so make sure your cover drapes to the ground. Uncover them in the morning when the temperature rises above freezing.
  • Assess Losses: Hardy perennials, trees, and shrubs may recover from a late spring freeze, even if visibly damaged. Their blooms and fruit may be lost for the year, but once they begin actively growing you’ll be able to determine and remove any permanent damage to stems and branches. Frost-tender plants will not recover at all, so avoid planting them until you’re confident that freezing weather has passed.
  • Practice Prevention: Choose plants that are hardy for your climate zone, or plant tender plants in containers that can be brought indoors. Avoid applying fertilizer until after the last frost, to prevent a flush of tender growth that can be damaged by the cold.

Our friends at the National Weather Service have warned that we may have more extreme temperatures coming this winter, so please take care of your people, pets, pipes, and plants.

And don’t forget that purchasing a new home will give you a warm feeling, higher tech pipes, new plants, and happy pets. Call Arcara Residential for all your real estate needs!

Need a Smaller Down Payment?


While down payment requirements have increased for some programs, it is still possible to buy a home with less than 5% down…or even NO money down.

For example, FHA offers a loan program that requires as little as 3.5% down. In addition, the VA and USDA offer loans that require no down payment. Of course, there are restrictions with each of these programs that can include maximum loan amounts based on your location with FHA loans, income and property requirements for those offered by the USDA, and your qualifying status as an eligible Veteran.

In addition to those programs, keep in mind that many sellers in today’s market are willing to offer concessions, such as paying part or all of your closing costs. That can decrease the amount of funds you may be required to have to purchase your next home.

The point is that it’s still possible for millions of Americans to purchase a home with less than 5% down.

Home Staging is All the Rage!

Home Staging is the art of decorating a home to sell quickly and for top dollar. In the Birmingham and Huntsville areas, we are lucky to have SWAG Home Staging and Design close by to perform this magic for homeowners and realtors! Thanks to Erin Dunavant from SWAG for passing along these home staging tips. Erin can be reached at erin@swaghomestaging.com, swaghomestaging.com .

Home Staging Tips, by Erin Dunavant

Home staging is all the rage… and with reason! Staged homes sell much quicker and for higher prices than homes that are vacant.

If your home is vacant (that is, unfurnished), you should definitely consider the possibility of staging it. A professional home stager can make small rooms appear more spacious, awkward spaces feel usable and lofty floor plans feel cozy. A staged home will stand out among the competition and is more likely to be remembered at the end of a long day of showings.

There are many good reasons to stage a home. First, staged homes photograph better, which is critical for today’s Internet-driven buyer. Staging also helps the buyer imagine how a room can be furnished; it’s common knowledge that the vast majority of buyers do not have the vision to mentally furnish and decorate a vacant room. A staged home also appears to be occupied, giving a measure of security as well.

If your home needs staging during the marketing process, ask your real estate agent to contact SWAG Home Staging & Design. Yes, it’s another added expense, but for the right house – worth every penny!

Below are a few Staging Tips to help get you started:

Disassociate Yourself With Your Home.

Sellers need to realize: This is no longer their home; it is a house. Make the mental decision to “let go” of your emotions and focus on the fact that soon this house will no longer be yours. Say goodbye to every room as each space will be need to be transformed into a product.

De-Personalize.

Pack up those personal photographs and family heirlooms. Buyers can’t see past personal artifacts, and you don’t want them to be distracted. You want buyers to imagine their own photos on the walls, and they can’t do that if yours are there! You don’t want to make any buyer ask, “I wonder what kind of people live in this home?” Rather you want buyers to say, “I can see myself living here.”

De-Clutter!

People collect an amazing quantity of junk. Consider this: if you haven’t used it in over a year, you probably don’t need it. If you don’t need it, consider donating or throwing away unnecessary items. Be sure to remove all books from bookcases and pack up all knickknacks. The most valuable space in a home is the kitchen; therefore, clean off the countertops & remove all items from the refrigerator. Put essential items used daily in a small box that can be stored in a closet when not in use. Think of this de-cluttering process as a head-start on the packing you will eventually need to do anyway.

Rearrange Bedroom Closets and Kitchen Cabinets.

Buyers love to snoop and will open closet and cabinet doors. Think of the message it sends if items fall out! Now imagine what a buyer believes about you if she sees everything organized. It says you probably take good care of the rest of the house as well. This means to take a little time to alphabetize spice jars, neatly stack dishes, turn coffee cup handles facing the same way, and line up shoes.

Rent a Storage Unit.

Almost every home shows better with less furniture. Remove pieces of furniture that block or hamper paths and walkways and put them in storage. Since your bookcases are now empty, store them. Remove extra leaves from your dining room table to make the room appear larger. Leave just enough furniture in each room to showcase the room’s purpose and plenty of room to move around. You don’t want buyers scratching their heads and saying, “What is this room used for?”

Remove/Replace Favorite Items.

If you want to take window coverings, built-in appliances or fixtures with you, remove them now. If the chandelier in the dining room once belonged to your great grandmother, take it down. If a buyer never sees it, she won’t want it. Once you tell a buyer she can’t have an item, she will covet it, and it could blow your deal. Pack those items and replace them, if necessary.

Check Curb Appeal.

If a buyer won’t get out of her agent’s car because she doesn’t like the exterior of your home, you’ll never get them inside. Contact SWAG Services, LLC for all your lawn maintenance needs such as:

  • Mow the lawn. Edge the Yard. Blow off the Side Walk.
  • Plant yellow flowers or group flower pots together. Yellow evokes a buying emotion.
  • Trim your bushes.
  • Make sure visitors can clearly read your house number.

SWAG Home Staging & Design has an organized system to help start the process of preparing the home for sale and it begins with the Staging Consultation. This Home Evaluation will diagnose and recommend special room-by-room enhancement instructions. Additionally, SWAG will supply you with suggestions on repairs/improvements that will benefit the property and suggestions on how to prepare the home to sell. We are a unique service provider, in Birmingham & Huntsville, with the goal of maximizing your profit potential.

All information on this website is deemed reliable, but not guaranteed, and may change without notice. Any square footage is approximate.

Property of Arcara Residential, LLC; 771 2nd Street; Helena, AL 35080