Our farmhouse is built on rock and surrounded by rock. Every time we want to do something, we have to contend with some of the oldest rock on earth. And rock that old is stubborn.
When we drilled our well nine years ago, the water line ran over some of that rock. We went as deep as we could, insulated the line, and stacked a few bales of straw over the line every winter to provide an extra buffer against the cold.
A few winters back, we had unrelenting cold of -30 to -35 C every night for three weeks. I could go outside after dark and hear trees cracking like gunshots as they froze. Then one Tuesday night when I was in Toronto, I received a phone call from Susan that the water line had frozen and that she had fixed it.
She knew exactly what to do. She put a heater in the crawl space near where the water line entered the house. An hour later she turned on the pump again. There was a crashing and banging like someone was tipping over furniture in the basement as the pump pushed the ice out. Water again.
We turned up the heat in the room nearest the water line, put extra bales of straw outside over the line, and ran the heater every night after that. Even so, the line froze again in the middle of the night and our pump couldn’t push out the ice.
I could have thawed the line with my language. We ran the heater for three more hours but no luck. Then the plumber came out and we hooked up a hose directly to the boiler on our heating system and ran 180-degree water through the line but it still wasn’t enough. That used up about half of our heating water and kicked our dilemma up a notch. If we stole any more water from there we risked running out of heat, except for what the kitchen cookstove provided.
It was 4:15 in the afternoon by this time. I called a rental place in Napanee asking about a wallpaper steamer that we could use to pump in steam and the rental guy said he had something way better than that – a pipe thawer. Sounded like what we needed but the rental store closed at 5:00 and I was 45 minutes away. I asked him to wait for me and jumped in the car.
Just south of Roblin on road 41, a 10-car freight train was stopped on the tracks completely blocking the highway while a trainman took his evening constitutional, leisurely strolling back and forth along the train. He blocked the road for 20 minutes and I was alternating between fuming because I thought I would never get the pipe thawer in time and telling myself to settle down. When the train finally moved, I couldn’t resist telling him out the car window about his ancestry and that he chose an inconvenient place to park.
They waited for me at the rental store after a phone call from Susan checking to see if I was there yet. I rented the pipe thawer and went off to pick up a pizza in Napanee. After following my daughter Charlotte’s directions and stopping in three places asking if they had a pizza for us, I finally went the other way on main street and found the place. Ate my share on the way home.
The pipe thawer had four basic parts: a water tank, a heater, a small piston pump, and a hose. The pump sprayed the hot water out of the hose as you pushed it through the water line. Another hose collected the water sprayed out and recycled it back into the heating tank.
While I got the machine ready, Susan went down to the neighbour’s to get some water to fill up the machine tank. Ten minutes after she left I turned around to see her coming in the basement door, way too soon to make it to the neighbour’s and back. She had slid off the driveway and gotten stuck. So we dug her out and she went down to get water while I got ready to insert the hose from the pipe thawer.
When she returned, we poured the water into the tank and turned on the heater. When it was warm, I switched on the pump. Inserting the hose went smoothly. It sprayed hot water ahead of itself until I came to what seemed to be a dead end.
After spraying for a few minutes with no progress, I marked the line, pulled it out, measured it, and found I was at the well head. We turned on the pump and we had water.
Then we had to re-attach the inside waterline. I put the fitting on the well side, then pulled the plug on the house side to hook it up and suddenly we were completely deluged in water – imagine five garden hoses taped together and running full blast. Water from all the lines in the two-story house was cascading onto the floor. I grabbed both ends and got the fitting back together but only after Susan and I were completely soaked. Then one of the fittings leaked, so I had to hang a funnel to catch the water and rig up a length of hose to run it into the sink. We filled both our water tanks and shut off the big one, thinking that if we used only the small tank the pump would run more often and keep the water moving through the line. We cleaned up the water on the floor and went to bed.
Actually, the leak in the fitting might have been a good thing because it slowly drained the tank and turned on the pump a few times during the night. That kept the water flowing through the outside line, rather than just sitting there and freezing again.
I got up at 2:00 am and everything seemed to work fine.
After that, we installed a low-wattage heating line inside the water line to use during very cold periods but, in the last five years, we’ve only used it once.
Typical installation for water lines is to run them inside plastic, flexible, four-inch pipe that extends into the house right through the foundation. This way, the house heat travels back down the pipe to warm the water line.
In the course of thawing our pipes I noticed that the plumber had neglected to run the big pipe into the house through the foundation when he installed our water line. The big pipe stopped short, leaving the water line exposed so, of course, it froze there. He did the same thing with a heating line that ran out to keep the generator toasty in its own house. I insulated around these gaps so we will probably be all right in the future.
We hope your adventures in the country are as exciting as ours, and that the water line running into your house is well plumbed.