Pre-Winter Plumbing Prep
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Pre-Winter Plumbing Prep

We had just purchased the family cabin from my mother, and everything was new and exciting as we opened up our Pelican Lake cabin in northern Minnesota for the summer. We had always enjoyed and felt at home at the family cabin, but on our first trip as the sole owners, it was a distinct pleasure to flip on our power and turn on our water. Yes, the reality of cabin ownership hit us squarely in the face that day … figuratively and literally, like when a spray of 32.1°F water drenched my wife as she stood over the kitchen sink.

Somewhere, in the dim corners of the universe, I am certain the echoes of her scream still reverberate. The culprit in that case was a tiny O-ring in the kitchen faucet spray handle. It had iced up and ruptured over a cold winter. As the guy responsible for winterizing the cabin the previous fall, I mumbled something about faulty faucets and chalked it up to another lesson in the school of hard (water) knocks: Like many things in life, when preparing your cabin’s plumbing system for freezing temps, it’s often the little things that trip you up. Here are some tips, both small and big, to prevent your own springtime plumbing surprises.
Don’t rely on gravity
Probably the most common mistake is relying on a simple gravity drain to remove water from all your appliances.

In almost every case, you will need to blow compressed air through each and every appliance/piping run, removing miniscule amounts of water that can cause major damage if it freezes. A wide, rubber-nosed air spray attachment on a small compressor works wonders for this task. Just make sure you open a low-point valve and work from the top down, blowing water from each appliance and pipe (aka water traps) to a common low drainage point.

Keep everything open

Despite your best efforts, small amounts of water may remain in various appliances or pipes in your plumbing system. This is really only an issue if that water freezes in a constrained area; if the ice has room to move, it won’t rupture the pipe, O-ring or other critical device. Keep valves open, the faucets turned on, and use those cheap little plastic clamps to open up spray nozzles on the kitchen sink. Ice is only destructive if it’s boxed in.

The pink stuff
Most cabin owners know they need to add food-grade antifreeze (propylene glycol, or “the pink stuff”) to the various drain traps on sinks, showers, and toilets (the trap is inside the toilet). But occasionally, that splash of glycol isn’t quite enough to push all the water out of the system. Sometimes, aging cabins will have sags in the drainage pipes, and if that low point also has a union, ice could crack open the drainage area. To play it safe, add a gallon to each trap after the water lines have been blown clear, and make sure the toilet fill tank is empty of water and receives a glycol flushing. A few gallons of propylene glycol won’t hurt your septic system, and it’s cheap insurance against a potentially expensive failure.  
Overlooked water traps: Don’t forget about water heaters, furnace condensate pumps, water pumps and pressure tanks, refrigerator water/ice lines, and yes, faucets and spray nozzles.

Make a list: For everything you open up, slap a piece of tape on it with a number. Write down the number and the area you opened up, then go through methodically in the spring and close it up before you turn the water back on.
ICE DAMAGE – If you winterize your cabin each fall, remember that it only takes miniscule amounts of water left in your piping or appliances to cause major ice damage.
THE RIGHT TOOL – Use an air compressor to remove all the water from your pipes.

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