M. Giant's
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Friday, February 02, 2007  

A Cold Mess

I've read that if you want to get rid of the cold spots in your house, you should light a candle. Then hold it next to the cracks in your windows and doors and watch for it to flicker. If it does, it means the wind is coming in at that spot. If it doesn't, you still have a pretty good chance of lighting your drapes on fire, and pretty soon your entire house will be nice and toasty for about an hour, after which you won't have to worry about it any more.

They even tell you to do that in Minnesota. Which is ridiculous. Every year we have at least one four-or-five-day stretch where if you want to find a cold spot, all you have to do is get out of bed. I heard on the radio this morning that once the temperature drops below zero tonight, it's not going back into positive numbers until Tuesday. That's Fahrenheit, by the way.

When I got home from work this evening, I told Trash we weren't going to leave the house or even go outside until Monday morning. M. Small's movement class? He can skip a week. Perhaps if I'm feeling particularly adventurous, I might bundle myself up during midafternoon on Sunday, when the sun is high and the sky and the temperature is peaking in negative single digits, and I'll take the garbage out. But aside from that, we're hunkering down.

Not that our house is always the warmest place to be. We are lucky that heat rises, which means that our bedrooms stay nice and cozy. But then we go downstairs to make M. Small's breakfast and it's like we left the freezer open all night.

I thought that shrink-wrapping the windows would help, and it has. The problem is that the cold air has found another place to get in: under our kitchen sink.

That cabinet beneath the sink is the second-coldest part of our house within the outer walls. The coldest spot is inside the closet by our front door. You reach in there and it's almost as if the attached mailbox on the other side of the wall has a fan blowing exterior air straight in. Serendipitously, though, we hit on the idea years ago to stuff that closet with heavy winter coats, so I can't think of a way to insulate that space from the rest of the house better than it already is. And it seems to be working.

The sink cabinet is another story. You know how some people are fortunate (or extravagant) enough to have heated kitchen floors upon which they walk barefoot in the morning, like it's a sidewalk on a sunny day? We have the opposite. Our kitchen floor transmits heat from the kitchen and sends it directly into the neighbors' driveway. Some mornings I swear you could skate on it.

Still, it wouldn't be so bad if I didn't have to worry about thinks freezing under the sink. So far only one thing ever has, and that's the kitchen drain. But that's enough.

The first time it happened, I had no idea what was going on. I thought it was some kind of physical clog that I could remove with Liquid Plum'r. When that didn't work, I tried the toilet plunger. When that didn't work, I tried the shop vac. When that didn't work, I tried a coat hanger. And when that didn't work, I would have tried a realtor if Trash hadn't stopped me.

I should have guessed it was a plug of ice, though. It was a weekend like this one, when the temperatures were roughly the same as those found in outer space. I had also had the major brainwave of trying to save some energy by not keeping the basement very warm. We have these baseboard heaters down there which are highly inconvenient for arranging furniture around, but make up for it by putting out about half a BTU each. I'd turned them off, and the ambient basement temperature probably dropped into the fifties (I've got them on at the moment, which means it's at least 60.1 down there right now). Combined with the fact that the pipe from our kitchen passes right by the frigid basement window before disappearing through the concrete and into the permafrost, it was enough to create a long, dingy popsicle somewhere in there. And trust me, you don's know how much you rely on your kitchen drain -- and your dishwasher -- and your kitchen sink -- until you can't use them any more. One feels a bit silly washing dishes in the toilet. You have to squirt in quite a bit of detergent with every flush, and the bottle's empty before you know it.

I would have poured boiling water down the drain to melt the clog, but since said water would have had to travel through the room temperature water in the sink (and in the garbage disposal, and in whatever length of unfrozen pipe remained), that would have limited effectiveness. I didn't even know where the ice-clog was. What I ended up doing was spending an afternoon with heating pads and a hair dryer, alternating between upstairs and downstairs while applying heat to whatever part of the pipe felt coldest at any given moment. Eventually the clog melted, functionality returned, and I could put all the poisonous crap back in the cabinet where it belonged. And the best part is that I knew exactly how to deal with the situation the next five or six times it happened. I suppose we're lucky we never had a pipe burst, although at least then we would have been able to get rid of the water in the sink without using measuring cups.

However effective this solution may be, on the other hand, it is less than ideal to have to unlock the cabinet containing poisonous cleaning supplies and have them lying around for a few hours when there's a toddler in the house. So it's better to avoid the situation entirely. An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, as they say. And I've discovered that when the temperature drops below minus ten, several gallons of boiling water poured down the kitchen drain all at once contains at least an ounce of prevention. Maybe even a whole cup. And the drainpipe hasn't frozen in years.

I suppose it's possible that it wouldn't have frozen anyway, that I'm using overkill to obliterate nothing more than a few particles of slush. But the other advantage is that after the water's gone down and there's nothing left but a cloud of steam rising from the garbage disposal opening, I can go downstairs and wrap my hand around that drainpipe, and it's giving off a lot more heat than one of those baseboard heaters. And that makes it possible to comfortably sit and watch down there TV for at least an extra minute or so.

posted by M. Giant 8:17 PM 2 comments


I don't know if you've tried this, but growing up my parents were always told to keep a small trickle of water running so our pipes wouldn't freeze.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at February 5, 2007 at 9:29 AM  

That doesn't always work either, as we painfully discovered this morning. Long story short--the pipe leading from the dock to our boat (we live on a house boat)was cracked and leaking (through no fault of our own) and formed a solid block of ice, thus sealing the pipe.

Bad, bad things happened.

If the ice gods wish to smite you, you will be smitten.

By Anonymous Anonymous, at February 5, 2007 at 2:56 PM  

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