Austin, We Need To Winterize

October 1, 2021
By: Abacus Plumbing, Air Conditioning & Electrical
Posted In: Austin News, Maintenance Tips

Winterizing a Home in Texas

As winter approaches your hill country homes, we’re beginning to consider our experiences of last winter. The “snowpocalypse”: of February 2021 is still affecting us months later. Some of us are paying off plumbing repair bills, while others are researching alternative heating sources. And nearly everyone is wondering how do we prevent this from happening in the future? To prepare for the upcoming winter, DIYlifeguide has some winterizing suggestions.

Written by DIYlifeguide in Uncategorized

The February 2021 winter storms hit Texas and paralyzed its power grid and other utilities for weeks. People's homes were devastated by burst pipes spewing water everywhere and gas leaks leaving many without heat. Many may be asking how we prevent this from happening in the future. How can we not only winterize our electric grid but also spread awareness on what to do when crippling low temperatures hit as far south as Texas.

Many of the consequences of this storm could be easily prevented but temperatures this cold in Texas are so rare everyone got caught off guard. This kind of weather is normal in other parts of the country but it has no consequence because people are more prepared. Global climate change will bring increasingly tumultuous weather everywhere in the world. Freezing cold may become a more frequent event in Texas and everyone should be prepared for this to happen again.

How do I winterize a home in Texas?

  1. Know where the water main shutoff valve is to your house. You will need to know where this is before you evacuate any pipes in the house. It's usually in the front yard closest to the street if you have city water. If you have a different water source you may have a different area where your water main shutoff valve is.
  2. Know where your pipes are located in the house. Water pipes run to baths, kitchens, and outside faucets in the house. You want to evacuate all pipes leading to outside faucets. If any of the pipes are facing an outside wall or unconditioned attic space they will be more susceptible to freezing and bursting. Evacuate any pipes that lead to areas that are susceptible to freezing. You may be able to use only one sink or one toilet while the freezing temperatures remain.
  3. Evacuate all the pipes with outside faucets that run in attics or outside facing walls. You can do this by shutting off your water main and then going to every faucet you want to evacuate and letting all the remaining water rush out. Put a note to not use that faucet for others living in the house. When you turn the water back on it will run to the faucets you are using leaving water out of the line that could freeze. If there is no water in the line it can’t freeze and burst the line.
  4. Insulate any pipes that do run outside. Typically if a pipe is insulated it can withstand temperatures down to 20 F but under that, you are rolling the dice. In the case of multiple days at 0 F, you will want to evacuate the pipe just in case. The best insulation is foam and wraps over the pipe doesn’t leave any gaps for cold air to get in.
  5. Have a backup heat supply. If your house is electric you should have a backup gas heater. If your house is natural gas heated have a backup electric heater just in case. If your house has a fireplace make sure to have a few stacks of wood ready. DO NOT just burn things in your house that is a quick way to die of smoke inhalation. If you want to be off-grid consider adding an indoor wood stove stove that uses air vented in from outside.
  6. Have a backup electric supply. The best option for off-grid electricity is solar. Even on a cloudy day panels can run a few outlets and enough juice to turn on the gas heater. Don’t expect to be able to run electric heat unless you have a very robust panel array and battery storage set up. For most people, it helps to have enough panels just as a supplement. If you don’t want to have a solar setup or say you live in an apartment and still want electric backup capacity, consider a gas generator. Do not run the gas generator inside as it will release carbon monoxide.
  7. Have a backup water supply. If you have a creek or stream nearby you can filter and boil the water for a backup water supply. If the water is polluted don’t use it but if it's reasonably clear there are camping filters that can filter out pathogens. Boil it too just for good measure. If there is snow on the ground you can gather the snow and melt it. Use the same filtration and boil process. It also doesn’t hurt to have a few gallon jugs of water in the cabinet as well just in case.
  8. Pour antifreeze into any external p traps. Luckily in Texas, most houses are built on a slab foundation so most pipes will be surrounded by concrete. If you have a pier and beam house you may have p traps that are hanging out in the open. Make sure any p traps have antifreeze in them so they don’t burst.
  9. Make sure your house is strongly insulated. Often R-value standards to meet the code are less in Texas than in other northern states. It makes sense because if your house isn’t adequately insulated in many places in the northern US, people can freeze in the extreme winters. I think we should start shifting our views on skimpy R-value standards, and insulating our houses to the same R-value as northern homes. A good standard of insulation will keep pipes in the walls more adequately protected. In the situation of losing a heating source, a house with a higher R-value insulation level will hold the daytime heat into the night. Ways to insulate additionally may include adding blow-in insulation in the attic and walls or adding external insulation. A good standard to aim for is R-40+ in attic spaces and R-20+ in walls.
  10. Let your at-risk faucets drip so they don’t freeze over. If you have a faucet that you want to keep open but it faces an exterior wall you can keep the faucet from freezing by letting water slowly leak out. This solution isn’t preferable because it wastes a bunch of water but if you have a house full of people and you need more bathrooms open you may need to let a bathroom drip in a pinch.

Should Texas winterize the electric grid?

I think everyone would agree it would be nice if the electric grid under ERCOT was winterized. However when it comes to the dollars and cents the private electrical companies don’t want to shell out the investment. The Texas grid is very unique in that it is unaffiliated with the federal grid and thus can skirt federal regulations and oversight. We should press our politicians to put their foot down with these companies and require beefier infrastructure that can handle colder weather. However, it's going to be an uphill battle as temperatures as cold as February 2021 haven’t graced the region in over a hundred years. It's hard to motivate people into something that has a hundred-year return on investment.

In the meantime, we should control everything in our sphere of influence and consider if being energy-independent is a good idea. Drilling private wells if permissible, collecting and storing rainwater, investing in solar panels and backup generators, and adding an auxiliary heat source are all steps that can make you safer when there are outages.

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