Cold Temperatures Bring Ice in All the Wrong Places

Frozen pipe spewing chunks of ice.
Frozen pipe spewing chunks of ice.

I walked up and down our mountain three times today. According to my phone, that was more than 14,000 steps and 54 flights of stairs.

That’s how long it took to get our gravity-fed water system thawed out and working again.

Last year, we upgraded our water system after it froze a few times, and we made it through the rest of that year without it freezing again. We were not so lucky this year. I guess those repeated nights of super-cold temperatures did it in. We had hoped the snow would insulate the pipe, and it may have, but it also insulated it from the sunshine that might have thawed things out during the day.

After my wife took her morning shower, she told me the pressure had been dropping. When I fed and watered the chickens, I noticed the low pressure myself. So I made a quick breakfast, and we proceeded up the mountain, backpack full of repair parts in hand.

Four Sections of Pipe

Spring water trickles through the 800 feet of black polyethylene pipe and that runs down 280 vertical feet from the spring to the cistern where it accumulates. This cistern is high enough above the house that it provides 65 pounds of water pressure. It also holds 800 gallons of water so that we have a nice cushion and can use lots of water while the spring slowly fills it back up. (The spring flows at less than 1-gallon per minute.) When the cistern is full, there’s an overflow through which the excess water flows down the hill and joins a stream.

There are three T-junctions where a pipe sticks up into the air. These are designed to prevent any vapor lock and help keep the water moving. They also provide a place for any water to leak out if the pipe freezes below it. This has the added benefit of keeping the pipe from splitting open, which happened before we installed the T-s.

We opened the pipe at the first T and there was no water. Our task was then to walk up the mountain, pulling the pipe out of the snow. As we go, we shake the pipe, listening for the sound of broken ice and feeling the pipe’s weight to see if there is any water in it. We got all the way up to the top section before the pipe was heavy with water. At the top of this area, the spring water had backed up and was running out of what was supposed to be the air vent. At least we know where the problem is.

De-Icing the Pipe

So how do you de-ice a black polyethylene pipe when you are in too big a hurry to wait for the sun? We pick up the pipe and bend it. If you bend it too far, the pipe will buckle and a leak will develop, so we had to be careful. When you bend it just the right amount, you hear the brittle ice inside crack. Then you move a foot up or down the pipe and do it again. All while working on a 35-degree slope. In the snow, slush, and mud.

When one person gets to the bottom of that section, they shake the pipe up and down and hope that water and ice come out. If ice slides out slowly, you know you have more work to do. If it comes gushing out with a whoosh, you know you are making good progress. We both went up and down the pipe a couple times, and ice kept coming out. It was frustrating, however, because the water was just not gushing through. We determined that there was one section of pipe where the ice was not breaking free, no matter what we did. So we left the pipe in the sun, slipped and slid back down to the house, and got lunch.

After filling our bellies, drying out, and changing our gloves, we hiked back up the mountain. Success! Water was coming out of the top section. The sun had done its work. We shook out the remaining ice until we had a clear pipe. Then we re-attached it to the next section. This section of pipe had felt light. I sent my wife down the hill and the water was flowing out there. That section had no ice in it.

The Final Section

We attached the next section and she walked down the hill again. This time, there was no joy. The water was not coming out of the bottom. The good news is that this run of pipe was at one of the steepest parts of the mountain and only the lower end, where it leveled out somewhat, had ice in it. We broke up this ice and slide it out of the pipe out much faster than we did do on the first section.

By this point, we have running water maybe 40 feet above the cistern and we’re feeling pretty good. We attach the hose to the T-junction and I go down to the tank and listen. Normally, you can hear the water splashing as it falls from the hose into the tank. I hear nothing. As I am listening, the air vent on our last junctions overflows with water. Apparently, there is a chunk of ice between our water and the tank, and we have no way to get it out because the pipe goes underground.

We decide our only hope is to boil some water and pour it into the pipe, hoping it will make its way to the ice and melt it out. So we go back to the house again, boil a gallon of our precious water, pour it into a carafe and a giant Stanley thermos, and hike back up the hill. This time, we each have backpacks.

One Last Trip

After hiking all the way and down the hill several times, this last trip was an easy one. It is only 160 vertical feet, about a third of the way. Sure, it was getting muddier and slipperier, but we had our hiking sticks. Besides, we felt like experts now.

I held the funnel into the pipe while my wife carefully poured hot water into the funnel. It was all for naught. The ice that was blocking our way had disappeared! Maybe it was the water pressure, or the temperature of the water pushing against the ice. Maybe it was the sunshine. The important thing was that water was flowing into the cistern. We re-attached all the hoses, tightened the hose clamps and headed back home to flush the toilets and get the air out of the system.

The water pressure is back up and I’m looking forward a shower tomorrow. Then we just have to hope the next blast of cold weather doesn’t create a repeat.

Our Preparedness Level

Because we knew there was a possibility that our water system would freeze up, we prepared ahead of time.

We had 32 gallons of water stored for flushing and washing, plus three cases of drinking water. We could have lasted several days before we needed to start thawing ice or getting stream water. I also had a daypack pre-packed with all my pipe repair parts and tools. Besides my body requiring some ibuprofen, the only problem we ran into is that the small propane cartridges that powered my torch don’t work well in cold weather. I knew this was a problem with butane camp stoves, but I didn’t realize it affected propane.

We used the flame of the torch to soften the plastic pipe, allowing us to more easily remove it from the junction or to push the hose back on. This is tricky and takes multiple hands. It’s made more difficult when cold water is flowing down the pipe when you are trying to heat it. I had a spare propane canister back at the house, so we were able to swap them out on our trip down. Despite doing so, I still had to resort to using the flame on my lighter once. It worked even better than I would have expected.

After a good six hours of work, I’m think it may be worth burying the pipe. It’s not the time or trouble, it’s that we would prefer not to run out of water during a cold snap. This summer, I’ll look into the cost of hiring someone to do it or of renting the equipment myself. I think I would need a skid steer with tracks or a small excavator.