Boy last week really sucked. Alex and I had insanely crazy and stressful work weeks, and the only thing that was keeping us at all sane was the promise of a weekend at the new house. We looked forward to a couple days away, resting, relaxing, and of course DIY-ing. We were excited to devote a good chunk of time to the work in the living room, and were feeling excited about romping in the snow with Lulu and watching a movie or two on demand. Sounds like a pretty great weekend plan, don't you think?

After a long Friday we arrived at the new house around 9:00 pm on Friday night. We got a late start because we wanted to let traffic die down a bit, and I wanted to check in on one of my listings to ensure the heat was on and my clients' (who have moved out of state) pipes hadn't frozen over the previous very cold days. After seeing all was working as it should at their home, we were on our way out of town, making the drive to the new house.

As we drove further from Alexandria, we noticed temperatures dropping steadily, and the car's thermometer read a mere 5 degrees when we pulled in the driveway at the new house. We remarked on the frigid temperatures, and took a moment in the chilly night air to pause and admire how bright and plentiful the stars were. As we unpacked the car we briefly talked about how great it will be to sit around the fire pit this spring with friends, and take in the view of the night sky away from all the city lights. 

When walking in the side door of the house near the newly refreshed bathroom, our common entry point to the home, my first thought upon entering was how darn cold it was in the house. Not just an I'm-cold-because-I-just-came-inside cold, but instead the I-can-see-my-breath-inside kind of cold. As Alex walked in behind me, I said to him, "Should we be worried that I don't hear the boiler running?" He wasn't immediately concerned, but went into the utility room to investigate. 

Much to our horror, we quickly realized that we were dealing with a serious situation. The boiler was not only not running, but the temperature gauge was pegged at zero instead of it's normal 170-180 degrees. Alex flicked the switch once or twice to see if he could get it to reset, but then his eyes fell on something terrible. Just below a shutoff valve was a large split in the copper and a trickle of ice.

Over the next 10, 20, maybe 30 seconds that felt like hours, Alex and I noticed one problem after another. Several sweat joint connections had been pushed off, the copper lines had burst or showed evidence of rupture, and we had icicles coming out of the boiler. We scanned the room, and saw several other burst or broken pipes and Lulu was playing with chunks of ice on the linoleum floor. 

We knew the heat was dead, and I felt the acid starting to churn in my stomach. Trying to remain calm because I could see Alex was coping even less successfully with the situation, I tried to focus on a solution. Before we realized the extent of the problems I called my go-to plumber that I've been working with on client projects, and he answered after just a few rings. (On a Friday night at 9:30, I might add!). Miguel suggested getting as many space heaters as we could, warming up the house in order to get the water shut off valve turned off (it was currently frozen in the on position), and he would be out at 7:30 am the next morning to fix the pipes. 

Alex and I raced out, because the closest home improvement stores are 20 minutes away. We arrived at Lowe's at 9:52, and were told they were all sold out of space heaters. Alex then ran into the nearby Home Depot, gaining entrance at 9:59 by going through the exit because the main doors were already locked, only to find out they too were sold out. Walmart was next. Again, no go beyond an office desk sized individual unit that couldn't melt a popsicle. Finally, a trip to Target yielded marginally better success. I was personally escorted around the store by the nicest and most helpful employee after explaining my situation. 

They had small desk sized space heaters for $29 each (the weird photo above is what I texted to Alex, using my hand as reference to show how small the space heaters were), but I knew they wouldn't be sufficient either. Instead, I bought a mop and two buckets, which seemed as practical at this juncture of utter defeat.

We arrived back at the house around 11:00pm, and continued our inspection. Much to our horror, we quickly realized that the burst pipes in the utility room were just the tip of the iceberg. (Pardon the pun.) Everywhere we looked the copper pipes for either plumbing or heating had ruptured in multiple places. The baseboard radiators in each and EVERY ROOM had at least one burst, leaving frozen puddles behind that looked like miniature penguin skating rinks. 

It was shocking seeing what the freezing water could do to the copper pipes. They were literally ripped apart from inside.

Plumbing connections and valves in the bathrooms were also blown apart with compression fittings popped straight off of the supply lines. The claw foot tub is no longer connected to the plumbing lines, and under our bathroom sink there's a good few inches between the connections.

Even the kitchen faucet suffered. Interior faucet parts were thrust outward, frozen into the sad stream of icicle beneath it. In fact, every faucet suffered in some way.

We knew that without space heaters, no water, and no heat, there was simply no way we could stay the night in what was probably 10 degree temperatures inside. We did what we could, placing towels underneath each of the damaged areas, and said farewell to the house for the night, packing back up and heading home just after midnight. It was a feeling of complete and utter defeat. 

In our 12 years of homeownership, Alex and I have never filed a homeowners' insurance claim. Being handy and having a heathy fear of our rates going up, we've always opted to tackle situations ourselves or simply pay out of pocket. But on the ride back to Alexandria, we steadily came to the conclusion that we'd have to contact our insurance company in the morning. The situation isn't limited to just a few broken pipes and connections, but instead a likely replacement of most of the home's plumbing. We still can't wrap our heads around that. How in four days since our last trip to the house, had we gone from having a beautiful and functional home to one that has no water, no heat, and destroyed plumbing??

The next morning we got in touch with Miguel to postpone his appointment knowing that there was little he could do while the house was still below freezing, and we started the claim process with our homeowners insurance. Alex spoke to an on-call insurance adjuster on the phone to understand what we need to do immediately, such as getting several estimates for repair, and also learned more about the process and how we'd need to show that we were actively heating the home while we weren't there. I was also able to reach our local contractor who took out the living room wall, and set up an appointment for Monday so his team could inspect the damage. It may not have been a furious rescue from teams of people, but at least we felt like we were making progress. 

We spent all of the snowy Saturday collecting space heaters from friends after posting a plea for any spares on Facebook, and ultimately amassed a collection of eight electric space heaters of various size. Sunday was spent back at the house on clean up patrol. Temperatures that day crept back into the mid 40s, and we needed to sop up as much of the melting water from the pipes, so they didn't cause further damage to the floors and house.

We ended up rigging up several creative solutions to direct the thawing water where we wanted it to go. It's amazing what you can do with a little tape and plastic bags. I felt like MacGyver...or maybe MacGruber.

All in all, we feel completely and totally dejected. The repair work is completely overwhelming to even begin to think about, and we have no sense of how this will derail our current projects, timeline, and budget even with insurance hopefully covering the bulk of the costs after our $2,500 deductible. This isn't just a case where we need to fix a few burst pipes. Each and every connection in our entire plumbing and heating system is suspect at this point. And our boiler, it may be damaged beyond repair as ice had pushed its way out of the manifold and has destroyed the gasket.

I keep reminding us though that it could be so much worse. Our family of four is safe. The house didn't burn down, it didn't flood (by some stroke of luck, the ice formed solidly enough before the pipes burst to keep the water from flooding the house), and we didn't even have any substantial damage to personal property. We're at the very beginning stages of renovation, so even with invasive repairs this event won't be undoing months or years of hard work. And we can't forget to acknowledge that we're lucky enough that this isn't our primary residence, so we're not going to be relocated to a hotel while we get this sorted out. In the grand scheme of things, this is just another step in our renovation journey. Even though I really feel like this.

We keep replaying what if scenarios in our heads. What if the heat had gone out, but the temperatures had still been in the 30s, more normal ranges for our area and not record lows. Then we'd just be fixing the boiler. What if we had installed a camera on the boiler's pressure gauge, so we could have been able to remotely monitor the gauge for pressure drops? What if we had a wifi enabled thermostat that could have alerted us to the drop in temperature? What if the heat had just broken four days earlier or a day or two later? We would have been there to address the situation immediately. While we can't help but play the what if game, that sadly won't change the situation.

To finish the whole weekend off, on the way home we were driving along and talking about our next steps and what we should focus on. At that point the slowest and clumsiest skunk decided to cross the street right in front of our car. Alex tried his best to give this careless skunk a chance, but a close following SUV and oncoming traffic in the other lane made it nearly impossible and our right rear made contact with the poor skunk. The poor little guy ended up spraying our car and leaving us smelling pretty much how we felt. Let's just say that we're now calling our car The Skunkmobile. Effing fantastic.

We're just going to have to take it one step at a time, try not to freak out, and keep it all in perspective. Wish us luck. I think we're going to need it.

Comments 36


Emily R
2/24/2015 at 3:25 PM

I'm so sorry to hear about your bad luck. I commend your ability to stay calm and focus on the positive. You'll get this fixed up and one day far, far in the future you'll laugh. I'm up here in Boston with what feels like a million feet of snow. This spring can't come fast enough.

2/24/2015 at 3:43 PM

I honestly can't even imagine how I would approach something like this (no really, I live in Australia and we just don't have these problems where I live), but thank goodness for insurance. I can totally understand your despondency but you are all healthy and ok and you will bounce back (after a wine obviously). Good luckAlt smile

Bonnie Cote
2/24/2015 at 3:50 PM
Oh my - makes me want to cry for you. In NH my husband shuts off the water whenever we leave our lake house, even though we leave the heat at 55 degrees. Now I see why. :(
2/24/2015 at 3:57 PM

Omg I am sorry to hear of your plumbing woes. I know today is not the day, but eventually you will look back on this craziness and laugh. Also, you will be so proud of all you accomplished to get your weekend home to be a relaxing haven.

2/24/2015 at 4:14 PM

Dudes. Come by the house and we'll buy you all a beer. Wow. What a story. Takes the cake for any and all frozen plumbing stories I've ever heard. Our sympathies, but you guys will sort it out and you do have a lot to be thankful for!

2/24/2015 at 4:14 PM

OMG guys, what a nightmare! Poor yous!

Melissa @ HOUSEography
2/24/2015 at 4:36 PM

oh no!! We actually rented a ski house over President's Day in Deep Creek and we got there and its as 42 degrees inside. If it hadn't been rent that weekend they would have been in the same boat. We often go to weekend houses in the winter and standard arrival and departure procedure is turning the water on/off and draining the pipes. Often they have a separate shutoff for the boiler if it's a hot water heating system. Something to think about as you get your plumbing fixed. Hopefully this will be the only major setback in this house and maybe it will present some opportunities for projects you hadn't planned on immediately but which might make more sense as your repair pipes, etc. Good luck!!!!

2/24/2015 at 5:01 PM

Your composure, actions, and reactions are impressive. Seems all the past setbacks of home ownership prepared you to handle this and minimize damage. Please keep us posted with any updates.

2/24/2015 at 5:04 PM

This happened to us in a vacant house we were selling. Only we flooded. Unimaginable damage. But insurance covered it,we recovered and it became a story of the house. It will for you too. Keep the faith and enjoy your soon to be upgraded plumbing.

2/24/2015 at 5:29 PM

I am so, so sorry. Sending you positive energy. And recommending lots of wine. My house (in Rockville) was burglarized 2 days before Thanksgiving, and I can relate to the "big call" to the insurance company. But sometimes, in these overwhelming situations, it's nice to have a voice on the other end of the line who has heard it all and give you solid advice on next steps.

2/24/2015 at 5:37 PM

Oh, this is so sad to hear. At least you weren't too far along in your renovations and you're well-insured. Not sure if you will have to open up the walls a lot to get at the plumbing, but if you do, maybe you can do some electrical outlet planning. We had to replace 1919 electrical and pipes, and our walls looked like swiss cheese, but now we have safe wiring and clean pipes, with the bonus of outlets and lights where we need/want them. You may yet get some benefits from this raw deal.

2/24/2015 at 6:50 PM

You have all my sympathies. That's a hard thing to deal with.

Having been though something similar, may I offer some advice?

First, one day at a time.

Second, the worst is the first few days, when you're still learning about what's gone badly and are barely on the path of future planning. It will get better as you finish learning about the bad news and create a plan for fixing it.

Third, if it helps, write down your blessings as you think of them. You thought of many already, such as this isn't your primary residence and you hadn't gotten far in your home renovations.

Fourth, YOU DIDN'T DO ANYTHING STUPID. While it's true there were extraordinary things you could have done to help - really, what normal people think about putting a camera on their second home's thermostat? (yes, I know you're not normal) - but that doesn't mean you screwed up in not doing it.

Fifth, when you're ready to think ahead and look for silver linings, think about all the improvements you can implement more easily during the repair process. Lay wiring exactly where and how you want it. Good insulation behind the walls. Someone else to take down walls. Now may not be the time for it and that's OK, but when you're ready to plan I know you're going to be off and running with the possibilities.

Good luck and may things go smoothly from now on. You've certainly had your share of bad luck with this house already.

2/24/2015 at 7:10 PM

Good comments from all especially Harry. My jaw dropped when looking at the pictures of the burst pipes with ice coming out. Oh my that is so demoralizing! Under the best of circumstances I hate winter and this one has been the worst I can ever remember. You guys are stiff upper lipping it with the best of them!

Fingers crossed, our pipes are okay so far. The water heater died two weeks ago (and it powered the upstairs heat in our house); the silver lining there is it wasn't beastly cold yet. If it had happened a week later it would have been camp out in the living room with a fire going at all times.

I'm trying the one day at a time approach so I don't freak out about what we discover when it thaws. Our main hobby is our water garden and yard. Pumps are frozen solid in fish pond and I'm intentionally NOT reading up on how long koi can survive in unoxygenated water. I'm afraid it also may be goodbye to many many mature shrubs (camellias, loropetalums and aucubas to name a few that are taking a big hit).

2/24/2015 at 7:18 PM

Sorry to hear your bad luck. Hopefully there will be a silver lining in all this. I thought I was having a bad day having to have our 5 year old water heater replaced unexpectedly today. Was so lucky that our wonderful plumber was able to come right away to assess the situation and get a replacement in today. Keep your heads up.

2/24/2015 at 7:23 PM

First, I am so sorry that you have to go through this. It is horrible and stressful, at best. Three years ago, we lost a home and nearly all of our belongings when a toilet failed in our second floor guest bath.

Don't what-if yourself to death. These situations are random and unpredictable. You are successful capable adults and it will all be a distant memory soon enough!

The most important thing is that all family members are safe and you are well-insured. We're thinking of you!

Margaret Schleicher Bjorklund
2/24/2015 at 7:40 PM
Speechless from here in icy Tn. Thinking of you--you are young and able and will get through this--remember it is a journey and you will laugh about it all years from now!!!! Best of luck.
2/24/2015 at 7:47 PM

Thinking of you!! Best of luck.

2/24/2015 at 8:33 PM

I'm so sorry this happened. Both of you were much calmer than I would have been.

Harry gave great advice. The only thing I can do is pray the damage is not as great as it may seem and that the people working on your house will soon make your home good as new. Best wishes.

Little Red
2/24/2015 at 9:30 PM

Holy cow! I'll keep my fingers crossed for you as you two go about fixing all this.

Kate 'Katya' Viar
2/24/2015 at 11:00 PM
Ughh, I am so sorry, guys.
Emily Mathiak
2/25/2015 at 12:25 AM
I have no words...holy crap, what a mess. Glad you're finding the silver lining. I do have to admit that I burst out laughing at your Skunkmobile. Best of luck!
2/25/2015 at 6:27 AM

Oh my goodness -- I'm so sorry you're going through this headache. What a nightmare. Good luck as you get this sorted out. Thinking of you and hoping the repairs go as smoothly as possible.

2/25/2015 at 7:11 AM

Alex and Wendy, I am so sorry.Alt frowning That's all I've got. Wishing your house (and your hearts!) a speedy recovery.

2/25/2015 at 8:30 AM

Whew, that's rough!!! You guys are geniuses, though, and with the insurance claim, you'll find a way to turn all of this disappointment into something that will benefit your home. Stay strong!

The skunk, though? That's just some rotten luck!

2/25/2015 at 8:47 AM

I'm Sorry!! This is devastating. I worked in property management on foreclosed houses for the banks and burst plumping, especially radiant heat is EXTREMELY costly and the situation becomes worse due to mold in the wall that is not recognized and addressed timely. If the pipes are burst it is likely that drywall has gotten wet and needs to be removed. Luckily you caught it while it is still actually frozen so you can hopefully clean up any of the wet water. My suggestion, get the wet flooring and drywall out asap!

Laura C
2/25/2015 at 10:04 AM

How awful for you both - I'm so sorry! The fact that the house did not flood is, indeed, a silver lining in this dark cloud. You will get through this and, as others have pointed out, will eventually benefit from brand-new plumbing and possibly a brand-new furnace.

2/25/2015 at 10:18 AM

How miserable! I was stunned by how far some of those connections split. It's especially bad since you had radiant heat and now can't heat the house either. Best of luck with the insurance process.

2/25/2015 at 10:53 AM

I'm SO sorry to hear about the frozen pipes and the attendant damage.

I've luckily never had anything quite that major, so no good advice to offer, but I'm sending good thoughts your way.

2/25/2015 at 12:02 PM

Wow, just wow. There isn't much else to say. I worried this exact thing would happen while I was working on my house. (& still do when I'm away traveling during cold weather.) Since my dad lives next door, I got a battery operated freeze warn light that would activate if the indoor temperature dropped below 45 and put it in a window that faced his house. It went off once when the contractors left a window open in January, crisis averted. There are other solutions, but many require having a phone connection.

It looks overwhelming. Went through storm cleanup that was bad and had to look at it like eating an elephant - one bite at a time. Good luck & sending positive vibes from Illinois.

2/25/2015 at 4:26 PM

Very sorry to hear this! Our boiler died multiple times during the first year we were in our house. Luckily I was home every time it happened and I was always able to repair it enough to get it to limp through to the Spring. As soon as that first winter was over, that thing was out of there and on its way to the scrap yard. I actually took pleasure in breaking it up with a sledgehammer after I installed the new boiler.

It sucks that you have to file a homeowner's claim, but that's what it's there for. Hopefully this will be the first and last time you ever have to use it.

It has been really cold here in MD the last few weeks. I would suspect that the boiler cut off shortly after you were there last. No heat for a couple of cold nights is all it takes for the plumbing to freeze and rupture.

If you can work it into your claim, I would recommend replacing the boiler and starting fresh. Ours wasn't very old when we bought our house, but it had not been properly maintained. That makes all the difference in the world. A boiler that would normally last 30-40 years won't last a third that long if it's not maintained.

Good luck with this mess! You all will get through it - this is relatively minor compared to some of the obstacles you've had to overcome. And while you're at it, this gives you the perfect opportunity to replace those baseboard radiators with more appropriate cast iron units!Alt smile

2/25/2015 at 8:59 PM

I think you have done a good job of seeing the "up" side of this whole situation and are handling it beautifully. Upgrade to the hilt so you don't have to worry about this happening again. Please keep us updated with lots of pictures. This is a learning experience for us all.

Jean-Christian Pitre
2/26/2015 at 2:24 AM
OMG that's horrible. I've never heard of pipes getting this much damage, but then again, freezing water expands, and much like tree roots growing through concrete, something's going to give. This is just heartbreaking though. A lot of it can be patched (because it's all copper) instead of replacing everything, but it's going to be a lot of work, and a lot of time. I suppose the only silver lining is that this isn't your main house, since being without heat or water for a few weeks would suck. I really wish you guys luck and a quick recovery from this.
2/26/2015 at 12:30 PM

So sorry to hear this, you guys. We had something similar happen to our weekend house a couple of years after we bought it. Because we have an ancient furnace that's completely inefficient and expensive to run we elected to close down the house for the winter and drain the pipes. I looked up instructions online and we followed them. Turns out the instructions weren't exactly correct and we ended up with 8 burst pipes - in walls and floors. That set our DIY schedule back a whole season, and left us with an unusable house until it was fixed. The bright spot from that misfortune is that we met our plumber, a wonderful guy who we love - dependable, easy to work with, accessible, and reasonable. So, something good always comes from something bad. Now, we always have him drain the pipes at the end of every season and get the house back up and running in the spring.

Ursula Ellis
2/27/2015 at 3:45 PM

So, so sorry. I don't know what else to say.

2/27/2015 at 9:31 PM

I feel so much for you two right now. I say this because I was there not too long ago. A year ago our rental property flooded during sub temperatures. I spent the next 6 months ripping out drywall, trim, flooring etc. It was a nightmare, but fast forward to now, and although I wish it had not happened, I gained so much more home improvement knowledge of plumbing, electrical. etc. I also found some great and not so great contractors throughout the process that I have been able to use since. I hate that this happened to you, but I can't wait to see how you both come out on top in the end - because I know you will!

3/2/2015 at 11:20 AM

Oh gosh. I'm so sorry you have to deal with this! I can only imagine how disheartening it could feel.

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