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!

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