In his famous poem, "The Wasteland," T.S. Eliot said that April is the cruelest month. Growing up in Missouri and living in London might not have qualified Mr. Eliot to describe Vermont’s cruelest month. Sure, I get the April analogy ... spring flirts with early flowers and the occasional mild day, only to be retracted with a bitterly cold snow storm. But the truly cruelest month is always January in my opinion. First off, January drags on forever. In the midst of it all we may get a January thaw, but when that sucker is over you know you’ve got another three months of tough sledding in front of you. That’s cruel.
You are a lot more likely to have sub-zero temperatures in January than in any other month of the year, but December and February have been known to deliver big doses of arctic air. It’s just that January is virtually guaranteed to give you those 20 below readings around here. This is when another cruel aspect of January rears its gnarled, ugly, quasi hideous head. Frozen pipes. Most modern homes don’t really have a problem with that. I never had a problem with frozen pipes when I moved into my circa 1957 cottage. As long as I plugged in the heat tape in October, and left it on until mid-April, I was fine. Then I added 1,100 square feet of living space after having had the cottage completely rebuilt and modernized. This was when all of my plumbing was re-routed. Since that time I have been dealing with frozen pipes each and every January.
First it was the main water line that came in from the well. We had eliminated the old heat tape during reconstruction because I had all new insulation. Well, that was a big mistake. The problem was solved with some of that professional grade heated line with the stainless steel jacket. Haven’t had a problem with the main line since. Once we had plenty of water I discovered that 10 degrees above zero was the freeze point for the pipes in the downstairs bathroom. A look in the attic where the pipes descend into the first floor bathroom revealed insulation torn up by our wonderfully curious and energetic male cat Max. It sure did make a warm and comfy hidey hole. After that mess was cleaned up the pipes did not freeze the next winter.
Well, evidently Max was allowed to check out the attic again for mice and yup, you guessed it, tore up the insulation in the same exact place all over again. Result: frozen pipes. My friend the late Bill Makris of Putney would liberally use insulating foam everywhere. He would even drill holes in the wall above and below where he heard mice and squirt in some of that great expanding foam. He claimed that it worked and he never smelled any rotting mouse carcasses, either. Can you imagine what they’ll find if and when the house gets remodeled? So, I took a page from Bill’s book and taped up the place where the pipes come into the bathroom. Then I went up into the attic and filled the place where the pipes go down to the bathroom with half a can of expanding foam insulation. Let the freakin’ cat dig that up! So far so good.
The final place where pipes have frozen was the kitchen sink and dishwasher. That only happens when you get temps well below zero with wind. They froze recently and all I did was open the cabinet doors under the sink and wait for it to thaw out. Sure enough, a day later they were fine. When the latest cold snap hit I turned the water on in the kitchen sink at a dribble and left it like that. No frozen pipes. That sort of thing is not a cure for the root of the problem. In the coming months I’m having some trim work done near the pipes for the kitchen sink, and we’ll look into beefing up the insulation at that time.
While I’ve experienced frozen pipes, I have never had the displeasure of having pipes burst. That’s like the ultimate in cruel January tricks, so I’m knocking on wood that it never happens. So there you go T.S. Eliot. April is not the cruelest month around here. I say its January. Like I said earlier, in January you know you’ve got at least three more months of hard sledding and that’s what makes it so exquisitely cruel.
Arlo Mudgett’s Morning Almanac has been heard over multiple radio stations in Vermont for nearly 30 years, and can be tuned in at 92.7 WKVT FM Monday through Saturday mornings at 8:35 a.m.