HOME CLINIC: Last winter the pipes in our well house froze. While we were able to thaw them without any damage, I'm concerned this problem might occur again this coming winter. What can I do? C.M., Issaquah
DEAR C.M.: 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 weatherstripping, or improper design from the outset - any or all of these conditions could put your well at risk.
So you're right to 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 flourescent) 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 weatherstripping, 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.
Written by Mike Nelson from the Education and Information Network of the Washington State Energy Office. People with disabilities who need this information in alternate formats should call (800) 962-9731 (voice and TDD).