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Frequently asked questions

Is licensing intended to prevent anyone but a plumber from doing sanitation work? NO… Licensing prohibits the irresponsible, incapable person from endangering the health of your family, neighbors, and community. Any person may do the work who has sufficient knowledge to do it in a safe manner, so long as the Rules and Regulations of the plumbing and sanitation code are observed. However, those wishing to do such work must demonstrate their ability by taking out a license and passing an examination.

Done improperly this work would probably need to be rectified at the time the property changed hands which means paying twice for the same work. Additionally, licensed plumbing professionals are held to a certain standard of accountability – meaning they must perform their work correctly or risk being liable for accidents, damages, illnesses, etc. caused by improperly performed jobs – and must often hold some form of bonding or insurance that can help to protect you in the event of something happening.

Yes and no. A toilet with no vent may not flush the contents out of the bowl, but any other drain will work without a vent. (NOTE: the code is that all fixtures shall be vented). In my experience, only twice in 15 years has a vent been the cause of a drain backup. In one case it was roofers who stuffed the old roofing material down the vents and the other was just a stray piece of wood. In both cases the material made its way down into the drain pipe and had to be removed. No amount of vent cleaning would have done any good.

Dishwashers are supposed to leave some water in the unit at the end of each cycle. This is to keep the element type heater, used for drying the dishes, from burning up. It’s a lot like a water heater element. If a lot of water stays in the sump – the drain could be clogged. A partially clogged air gap will do the same thing. The air gap is that little chrome dome on the kitchen counter.

Most household water systems are enclosed in a well house or a well box. An effective enclosure would be well insulated and have a built-in heat source, such as a heat lamp. Some enclosures are built below ground level with walls below the frost line to keep them from freezing.

But many well enclosures lack insulation or a heat source. Modifications to your system, remodeling, wear and tear from use, wet or missing insulation, torn weather stripping, or improper design from the outset – any or all of these conditions could put your well at risk.

Plan ahead. Here are some options:

1. Do nothing. If you don’t make any changes to your well house, you may face the prospect of frozen pipes again, but you can always turn on a faucet when temperatures drop. Moving water – a good drip will do – is far less apt to freeze. Turn up the flow at the first sign of a slowing drip rate.

This option is a good “panic” measure, but it’s definitely not good water stewardship. You’ll be using energy to kick the pump on more often than necessary and wasting water at the same time.

2. Put an incandescent (not fluorescent) light bulb in the well house. Place it near the pump, and leave it on during cold weather. A 100-watt bulb makes a great little space heater. Make sure the light can’t get knocked over or set something on fire.

This option provides a fair degree of security, but it’s not an energy-efficient alternative. If the light stays on 24 hours a day through the winter months, you’ll spend about $3-$5 a month.

3. Inspect your well house or box before the weather turns bad. Make sure there are no drafty holes, broken windows or missing insulation. Put heat tape on the pump and plumbing. (Follow directions on the package.) Heat tape made specifically for this purpose is available at most hardware stores. Plug in the heat tape. Initial costs may be $10-$30, depending on how much exposed pipe you have. Heat tape will be pretty reliable as long as the power stays on.

4. Weatherize the well house. Install new weather stripping, caulk and repair the roof. Add insulation if you didn’t have it before. Put in new insulation, if the existing material has been damaged.

Install a thermostatically controlled space heater. Set it at 45-50 degrees. The heater may or may not use more electricity than the heat tape or light bulb approach, depending on the weather. It will be more reliable.

With any of these options, check the well system during cold snaps. If you are worried about power outages, learn to drain your storage tanks and how to re-prime your water system.

You might also purchase a safe propane or kerosene space heater. Use it on those very cold nights when storm fronts roll through and knock trees across power lines. Just remember it’s not a good idea to operate unvented combustion heaters in an inhabited space.

Copyright (c) Seattle Times Company 9/23/95

How to Protect Well From Freezing

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