My house began as a hunting camp in an open field, morphed into a cute cottage, and has finally become a real house. It was built over rock ledge with a concrete frost wall that created a crawl space underneath. This is where the water pipe comes into the house. I was told to plug in the heat tape surrounding the pipe where it enters every October, and leave it on until late April. I did that for years with no problems. Then I had the kitchen, where the pipe enters the house, torn up and moved. That was when the trouble started. The north wall where the pipe comes in was insulated and the pipe was essentially built into the wall. The very first winter after this work was completed, the pipe froze. Fortunately, we got some stainless steel braided heat tape wrapped around the pipe and that solved the problem. However, that solve was not an easy one. In order to get to the pipe in winter, a snow bank created by the snow falling from the roof has to be removed. Then there's usually a layer of ice that has to be dug up, and finally, you gain access through a very small opening in the foundation.
Our new heat tape worked marvelously until this past winter when we had that one cold snap in February. Sure enough, the tape had given up, used up after about eight years of service. Because my "almost" brother-in-law Nathan Chase had built a beautiful chair rail surround in the dining room, the area where the pipe comes in, I ended up pulling off most of that new wainscoting to access the pipe in my successful attempt to get it thawed. I called Nathan and he came up and dealt with the problem saying that a more permanent solution needed to happen. After some discussion, we came up with a plan that could not be implemented until summer. That was OK with me, I can be very patient.
In the heat of July, Nathan showed up one day ready to tackle the nightmare wall. The plan actually involved a dual method of heating the pipe and a completely new surround for the area where it enters the crawl space. That meant excavation work. By hand. Then concrete had to be poured. Thick aluminum faced foam insulation was used, spray foam insulation was applied just about everywhere. Then a small roofed "bulkhead" was built over the new access. Wiring was required. It was routed through a switch hidden in a broom closet. Nathan felt that a combination of heat tape and an incandescent light bulb would keep this tiny area warm enough to prevent freezing. I wondered how we would know if the light bulb was on and working. Then I remembered when General Motors introduced the 1968 Corvette Stingray with tail light monitors built into the console. If the lights were on, tiny bezels would glow on the consoles. No, it wasn't more wiring and bulbs, it was the glow from a fibre-optic cable positioned near the incandescent light bulb in the tail light, transmitting that ambient light via cable up to the cockpit. Brilliant! Why wouldn't this idea work for a light bulb in your house? I got online, found some fibre-optic cable and ordered it. Nathan installed it, placed the glowing end in a relatively inconspicuous space on the wainscoting wall in the dining area and called it good. It works beautifully.
The work was completed, everything was buttoned up, and the job looks fabulous. We'll be keeping a close eye on this solution this coming winter. Just because we had a super mild winter in 2016 is not a guarantee that 2017 is going to be a repeat. Usually, Mother Nature plays this compensation game where a lack of snow one year becomes a dearth of snow the next, and so on. So we are planning on a very snowy, cold winter this coming season. This project was just one of our preparations. The next phase should be completed by October when I erect a temporary shelter to house our bio-blocks and the small tractor with the hydraulic bucket that I got early this past spring.
That's a completely different story that involves a workaround because they don't make wheel bearings for that tractor any longer, but it got solved, eventually. The tractor and its bucket will be preparing the site for the temporary shelter. With these improvements, I hope we have finally taken care of the nightmare wall and have a convenient space to store the tractor and our heating fuel source. Winter; you never stop dealing with it regardless of the time of year.
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 Monday through Saturday mornings at 8:35 a.m. The opinions expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect the views of the Brattleboro Reformer.