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Q&A Spotlight

Learning from the Big Texas Freeze

What lessons does the low-temperature disaster offer for building in this normally balmly climate?

Record cold temperatures in Texas last month brought on catastrophic power outages and widespread damage in homes that were not prepared for low temperatures. Broken water pipes were the cause of this damage in the Arlington-Mansfield, Texas, area. Photo courtesy T.J. Schell of Redline Roofing and Remodeling.

The news last month was filled with wrenching accounts of homeowners in Texas who were going without heat and water as unusually low temperatures from a polar vortex crippled the electric grid.

“Thousands of homes are having their water pipes freeze and burst inside the homes due to not having power for a day or so,” Peter L writes in this recent post in the Q&A forum. “My question is this: Does the code need to be updated so in the future if your power goes out for 24 hours your pipes shouldn’t freeze?”

Austin, Texas, is located in climate zone 2A, Peter adds, and Dallas is in climate zone 3A. Phoenix, Arizona, also is in climate zone 2A, and there, water lines are actually located on the outside of the house. If that area got similar below-freezing temperatures, it would be a “disaster.”

What can this Texan experience teach us? That’s the topic for this Q&A Spotlight.

Tougher codes would make a difference

Michael Maines suggests that revised building codes would make a difference, along with an effort by builders to offer  “disaster-resistant housing.”

Yes, adds Charlie Sullivan, building in resilience to power outages and cold snaps would make sense. So would recognizing that climate change may mean more frequent and more extreme swings in temperature. “The standard 99% design conditions might need an update for the middle of the U.S.,” Sullivan says.

Doug McEvers recalls looking at a new house in Houston in 2011 where slab-on-grade construction was the norm, along with locating ductwork in the attic. He wondered what the summer electric bills would be like for homeowners living there, and adds, “A better insulation and air-sealing package would have a benefit in all seasons.”

“Reports are that tens of thousands of homes…

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  1. kurtgranroth | | #1

    The comment that water lines in Phoenix AZ are installed on the outside is bang-on accurate. That was true for every house I've lived in and, notably, when the plumbers installed a new water line for the guest house I'm building, they brought it out of the ground on the outside of the slab. I didn't think it odd so didn't question it and the plumber made no reference to why -- that's just the way you do it.

    Well, I am wondering "why" now. Why would this become so much the default that it's not even questioned?

    My first thought was that it is simply easier since the placement isn't critical and it can even be done after the slab is poured... but the plumber is also going to be doing the drains and those all have to be very precisely located and installed prior to the slab pour. Locating a water line on the inside would be just like one more drain, essentially, so hardly a problem.

    So yeah, I'm wondering why this custom developed here?

  2. user-2310254 | | #2

    Has anyone tried this: Or is there some type of 3-way solenoid valve that could shut off the water and drain the lines?

    1. monitor_top_fan | | #5

      That looked like something nice. Unfortunately, the video is from 2015
      and the website advertised says "Coming Soon" and has a logo for a
      rubbish removal service.

      1. user-2310254 | | #6

        Good catch, Erik.

  3. Expert Member
    ARMANDO COBO | | #3

    The problem is when long term. It's very easy to install a water line shutoff in the garage or in an easy location within the house, and open all the faucets. Usually the lowest faucet, like a bathtub faucet, or a dedicated low placed faucet in the garage or even to the outside, should be sufficient to syphon most of the water out of the lines.
    For short time heat supply issues, I've said before, a tight, well insulated and sealed house should not have problems within a few days.
    Oh... and don't install the WH and HVAC in a ventilated attic. It's just plain DUMB!

  4. jameshowison | | #4

    I'm hearing stories around town of direct replacements of outside tankless with like for like. The costs of re-routing plumbing etc are just too high (and the work disruptive), so those that died will likely fail again (and they do fail, even in more mild freezes). So that's a code question: if they aren't forbidden then they'll be built and replaced over and over.

    One data point I'm told by friends: storage units across town in Austin are rented out, indicating the number of people temporarily out of their houses and apartments while fixes happen.

    The other big one was fire suppression systems in apartments, I heard those have done enormous damage.

    Oh, and the meme that PEX piping didn't fail (while copper did) is gaining broad currency. We're talking uninsulated PEX running under pier and beam housing. So I'd expect that to be an argument used to reassure people that the fixes this time will last more (and thus code changes aren't needed) Not really sure what to make of that, probably see lots of UV degradation cause a different set of problems :)

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