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.