HOUSTON — As the sun comes up across Texas and we come out of yet another hard freeze from overnight, a lot of us will be cautiously — with anxiety — looking over the walls and floors around our home for water where it shouldn't be.
That's because we have all seen the reports of thousands of water pipe breaks in homes and businesses after the 2021 arctic blast swept through the state earlier this week.
The wintry weather dropped Southeast Texas into near-historic low temperatures and left snow and ice that stayed for days statewide. It also knocked out power for millions, which left homes colder than usual, allowing more pipes to freeze.
How do you know if you have a problem with your pipes after a freeze?
Pipes break during wintry weather because the water freezes and expands inside the pipe, similar to putting a bottle of water or a can of soda in the freezer and watching it expand outward.
Often the pipes can't take the stress, and they break. This could happen inside your home's walls, in the attic, under your home or on the pipes outside your home.
Watch for these troubling signs during and after a winter event:
- Frost or icicles on the exterior of a pipe — especially if it was not insulated.
- Obviously — anytime water shows up somewhere that it should not be: on the floor, around light fixtures, etc. Water has a tendency to "travel" inside your walls and attic, so just because the leak appears to be right above you, that may not be the actual location of a broken pipe.
- Stains on your walls or ceiling. Look very carefully, perhaps with a bright flash light, for any discoloration from the normal paint. The beginning of a leak won't always show up as falling sheet rock — try to catch it in the very early stages of discoloration as it gets wet.
- Sagging sheet rock — know that most of the time when dry wall gets wet, it has to be replaced, especially if is soaked and sagging or can easily be pierced with your finger or a tool. Fix the leak first, of course. Just repairing the leak without removing damaged dry wall or moisture could caused mold problems down the road.
- Low water pressure or no water pressure — this could impact all your water fixtures or just one or two in a certain wall that froze. Of course, this is more difficult to tell if your city's entire water supply is compromised or suffering from low water pressure.
- Wet or muddy yard when it hasn't rained — or water draining from your property into the street.
- Expensive water bills — if you haven't changed your habits or had additional people staying over, a sudden jump in your monthly bill may be an indicator that you have a leak somewhere. It could even be from of a faucet or line outside or under your home where it may be less obvious. Again, walk around the perimeter of your property on a dry day and look for any clues like standing water or mud.
- Delaware Plumbing says that sometimes, but less often, discolored water or smelly water may also be an indicator that you have a broken pipe somewhere.
- Shut off the electricity in any area impacted by the water from the broken pipe — your entire home if you need as the situation is assessed
- Shut off water in the impacted area — sometimes you can shut off and isolate only the damaged area, but more often you will have to use the valve where the water enters your home from the city/county. In a worse case scenario, that vale may also be broken, and you will have to shut it off at the meter. You can call the city for help if you need.
- Take photos or video for insurance purposes
- Immediately begin removing as much of the standing water, moisture (leave a fan running in the area if you can safely use electricity) and damaged sheet rock as you can. During a natural disaster, if you wait for a professional to come and help, it could lead to further damage and mold due to wait times.
- Contact a plumber
- Contact your insurance company
- Hire a contractor to make other repairs (wall, ceiling) after the plumber does their work
Your best option ahead of a freeze: shut off your pipes
When freezing temperatures are predicted, especially temperatures below 30, there are ways you can protect your home's pipes and water system beyond just a drip or opening cabinets.
“...before you go to sleep, go out and turn that main turn off, turn some faucets on so your pipes can drain. They can’t burst if there’s no water in them to freeze," Director of Public Works for the City of Houston Carol Haddock says.
Master plumber Even Villasana says that is what he does — "I would not take a chance."
“I’m going to be draining the system down at my house," he said.
The best option is to shut off the city’s valve at your curb, it’s usually in a covered box. Simply turn the handle to where it's perpendicular to the pipe. If you can’t get to that one, the valve on the side of your house will also work. But before you do that, Villasana says there’s something you should do first.
“What people should do is while they have their water on if you have accessible water. Go ahead and fill up your bathtubs, if you have buckets to have some water supply to be able to flush toilets," he said.
“It’s better to be without water for 10 to 12 hours than it is for 10 to 12 days. Say a pipe bursts and you are waiting for insurance and the adjusters and all that," Villasana said.
You can turn the water back on once temperatures get above freezing, but make sure you open your faucets and do it slowly. Plumbers suggest using a clock and turning a little more water on each minute for five minutes – and make sure to have someone inside watching for any leaks.
Busted pipes are keeping Texas plumbers and hardware stores busy
The Home Depot off the Gulf Freeway and the Beltway 8 in southeast Houston was pretty busy Thursday morning. People were there for one thing: plumbing supplies.
The manager said they’ve also been busy with people looking for materials to fix their walls and lights that might have been damaged by the water from broken pipes. Read more here.