Reuben's Home Inspection Blog

How to prevent your outside faucets from freezing

February 4th, 2014 | 62 comments

With all of the recent cold weather, I’ve noticed a huge increase in traffic on one of my older blog posts on how to keep outside faucets from freezing.  I have a few more tips to add, so I’m re-blogging this post.

Most homeowners in Minnesota know it’s important to ‘winterize’ the outside faucets to prevent them from freezing, because freeze damage can destroy the faucet or lead to a burst pipe.  The problem is that many people don’t quite get it right; winterizing the outside faucets in the fall seems like a simple thing to do, and it seems like it should be straightforward and easy, but there are a few tricks you need to know to really get it right.

Garden hoses - First and foremost, disconnect the garden hose from the outside faucet.  If you leave your garden hose attached to the faucet, you’re asking for trouble.

Frozen Sillcock

Determine if your faucet is frost-free or not.  A rule of thumb is that if the faucet has a knob that’s perpendicular to the house, it’s frost-free.  The knob turns a long stem that closes a valve inside the house where it’s warm.  If the knob is at a 45 degree angle, it’s not frost free, and it needs to be winterized.  This is only a rule of thumb though; if a boiler drain is installed at the exterior of the home, it will have a knob that’s perpendicular to the house, just like a frost free faucet, but it won’t be frost free.  The photo below shows an example of a boiler drain installed at the exterior of a house.

Boiler Drain

To know for sure whether a faucet is frost-free or not, look up inside the spout.  On a frost-free faucet, all you’ll be able to see is a metal stem.  On a faucet that isn’t frost free, you’ll be able to see the valve components open and close when the handle is turned.  The images below show a faucet that is not frost-free.

Faucet open and closed

Frost-free sillcocks with an integral vacuum breaker  A properly installed frost-free sillcock with an integral vacuum breaker can have the water left on year ’round without any problems.  A properly installed frost-free sillcock will have a slight downward pitch; this allows water to drain out when the faucet is shut off.

Properly installed frost-free sillcock

When frost-free sillcocks aren’t installed with this downward pitch, water will sit inside the stem of the sillcock even when it’s turned off.  The pitch is a little dramatic in the photo below, but you get the point.

Improperly installed frost-free sillcock

If this water freezes, it can burst the stem of the sillcock.  Most homeowners don’t know this has happened until the first time they use their faucet in the spring.  Once they turn their faucet on, water starts shooting out of the burst stem inside the house, making a big mess while nobody is inside the house to see it.  This happened to Connecticut home inspector James Quarello while he was inspecting a home a couple of years ago.  Better him than me, I say.

The fix for an improperly installed frost-free sillcock is to have it re-installed with a slight downward pitch.

Winterizing standard sillcocks  With a standard sillcock, the water needs to be turned off and drained out to prevent freeze damage.  To do this, you’ll need to first turn off the water supply to the faucet from inside the house.  Exterior faucets should have a separate shutoff valve inside the house, but not all of them do.  On older homes, these valves are typically located at the ceiling somewhere close to the outside faucet.  On newer homes, the valves are typically located right next to the main water valve, and they’re also usually labeled.

Shut off valve labeled

Once the water is turned off inside the house, the outside faucet needs to be opened up.  Next, the bleeder cap inside the house needs to be unscrewed – this will allow water to drain out of the pipes.  Depending on how the pipe is pitched, the water may drain through the bleeder cap or through the outside faucet.  Keep a small bucket handy when you do this, just in case a lot of water needs to drain out of the bleeder.  After the water drains out, you can screw the bleeder cap back on and turn off the outside faucet.

Sometimes, two wrongs really do make a right  Some older houses in Minneapolis and Saint Paul don’t have a shutoff valve for the outside faucet, and the faucets never get winterized… yet they never have a problem with freezing.  How can this be?

Here’s a hint:

No insulation at rim joist

On older houses with no insulation at the rim space, there can be so much heat loss occurring here that the outside faucets never get cold enough to freeze.  I call this two wrongs making a right.  It’s certainly not a reliable method of preventing freeze damage, but it does seem to work.

Vacuum Breaker 1011Vacuum breakers complicate things  The problem with external vacuum breakers (aka backflow preventers) is that they don’t allow all of the water to drain out.  After the water is turned off and appears to have drained out, the rubber seal in the vacuum breaker will still trap enough water to destroy the vacuum breaker, which will cause water to spray out all over the place when the faucet is used again in the spring.

There are two possible solutions: remove the vacuum breaker in the fall, or drain the water out of the vacuum breaker.  If the vacuum breaker will just unscrew from the sillcock, go ahead and take it off in the fall.  The problem with this is that vacuum breakers are often designed to be permanently installed.  They have a little set-screw on the side that gets tightened down until it breaks off, making it so the vacuum breaker can’t be removed.  If your vacuum breaker leaks every time you turn on your faucet and you need to replace it, there is still a way to remove it without destroying your faucet – I made a video showing how to do it.

If the vacuum breaker can’t be removed or you don’t want to hassle with removing it, no problem;  there is still a way to drain the rest of the water out.  If you look up inside the vacuum breaker, you’ll notice that there is a small white plastic post.  Just push this post to the side, and the rest of the water will drain out.  The video below shows how this works.

If the vacuum breaker doesn’t have that white post, it may have a plastic ring that will allow it to drain.

What about those insulated faucet covers?  I don’t trust ‘em.  They’re probably just a little better than nothing.  Don’t waste your time.

Insulated cover

Author: Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections

          

 

Cheap Vacuum Breakers Don’t Meet Code

July 27th, 2010 | No comments

Vacuum breakers (aka – backflow preventers) have always been one of those pesky Truth-In-Housing repairs for homeowners in Minneapolis and Bloomington, but those aren’t the only cities where they’re required.  They’re actually a requirement of the Minnesota State Plumbing Code, section 4715.2100 (D).

Cheap Vacuum Breakers Don’t Meet Code

Part of the requirement for a vacuum breaker says any new device must be field testable. The minimum standard for a vacuum breaker meeting this requirement is ASSE 1052.  Vacuum breakers that conform to this standard are about twice the size of the really cheap vacuum breakers that you’ll find at most home improvement stores, and they cost about four times as much.

Vacuum Breaker 1052Vacuum Breaker 1011

At left is a vacuum breaker conforming to ASSE 1052.  You can see that it’s about twice the size of the cheap vacuum breakers that conform to ASSE 1011, shown at right.

Cheap Vacuum Breakers Are Still Allowed…

So why do you see the cheap vacuum breakers all over the place in Minneapolis and Bloomington, and why are they allowed for Truth-In-Housing evaluations?

Minneapolis and Bloomington allow these because they don’t want to place too large of a burden on homeowners.  They want homeowners to be able to pick up a cheap vacuum breaker at the neighborhood hardware store for a couple bucks.  They figure it’s better than nothing.

…But Not On New Construction

If you look at any new construction home or at any sillcock that has been recently installed with a plumbing permit, you’ll find the larger vacuum breaker, or the sillock will have an integral vacuum breaker.  If the sillcock has an integral vacuum breaker, it doesn’t need to be field testable.

Sillcock with integral vacuum breakerFrost-free sillcock with integral vacuum breakerThe photo at left shows a standard sillcock with an integral vacuum breaker, and the photo at right shows a frost-free sillcock with an integral vacuum breaker.  Both of these sillcocks meet the minimum requirements of the Minnesota State Plumbing Code.

Why Just Minneapolis and Bloomington?

So why is it that only Minneapolis and Bloomington require vacuum breakers for their Truth-In-Sale of Housing programs?  I suspect there has been too much complaining from residents in other cities.  Even though this is the cheapest, easiest ‘repair’ item required in Minneapolis and Bloomington, I hear more complaints about this one item than anything else.

RELATED POST: Why Do I Need A Vacuum Breaker?

Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections - Email - Bloomington Home Inspections

        


Why Do I Need A Vacuum Breaker?

January 17th, 2009 | 10 comments
Vacuum Breaker

Vacuum Breaker

This is one of the most common questions I get from homeowners that I do Truth-in-Housing Evaluations for.  If you’re selling your home in Minneapolis or Bloomington, you will likely hear about this.  A vacuum breaker, commonly referred to as a backflow preventer, is a device that prevents the potable water in your home, and possibly even your neighborhood, from getting contaminated.


How could your water get contaminated? Picture this scenario: I want to mix up some vegetation killer, so I buy the concentrated stuff, pour it in to a bucket, then put the garden hose in the bucket to fill it.  I turn the water on, but I get sidetracked with a plumbing project.  I shut off the water to my house, and then open up the laundry faucet to drain the water out of the pipes.  This will create a siphoning effect, which could actually suck the nasty chemicals in the garden sprayer back in to my home, contaminating the potable water.  An even worse scenario would be the city doing work on the water pipes, and the chemical gets siphoned back in to the city’s water supply, contaminating a whole neighborhood!

Vacuum Breaker Diagram

While these occurrences are not likely, it has happened many times throughout the country, and the cost to fix a contaminated water supply for a city is huge. The cost of a vacuum breaker is very small – about five dollars.  While only Minneapolis and Bloomington enforce vacuum breakers, they’re still required throughout Minnesota by the Minnesota State Plumbing Code, section 4715.2100 (D).

The two most common places where these are installed are at sillcocks (what you connect your garden hose to) and at laundry sink faucets.  An external vacuum breaker is required at sillcocks if they don’t already have one built in.  How do you know the difference?  The photos below show one sillcock with, and one without an integral vacuum breaker.  If a sillcock doesn’t have the little mushroom cap, an external vacuum breaker is required.  At laundry sink faucets, a vacuum breaker is needed if there are threads present that a garden hose could attach to.

Standard Sillcock

Sillcock with integral vacuum breaker

For more information on common Truth In Sale of Housing defects, click on any of the links below.

Reuben Saltzman, Structure Tech Home Inspections - Email - Minnesota Home Inspections