It dropped to -5.8° (-21° Celsius)  early Wednesday morning before clouds moved in from the weak coastal storm, and lifted temperatures to zero (-17° Celsius) by dawn.  A very light snow was drifting about, and the kitchen pipes were frozen, and my mood soured immediately. Thawing pipes had not been on my “to do” list.

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The light snow didn’t show up on radar, and the small storm off the Carolina coast didn’t seem to be worrying anyone, except perhaps me.

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Frozen pipes are just one of the glitches that go with the charm of owning a 250-year-old house. I have no idea of how many owners my home has had over the years, but some some have been poor, and have repaired rat-holes by carefully cutting and flattening a tin can, and then hammering it in place with cobbler’s tacks (because that owner apparently repaired shoes, judging from the heaps of worn-out soles we found under a floor.)  When we first moved in, some of the wiring was state-of-the-art for 1910, and the toilet was attached to one of the first town sewer systems in New Hampshire, (IE, it ran downhill to a local brook,) which dated from back around the time of the Civil War. I could go on, but let it suffice to say that in some ways I wished I could mothball the place and save it as a museum, but I had five kids to raise without much money, so I added my own jury-rigged southern engineering to the make-up of the abode.. Also it was obvious that in the past, likely when a tannery was in operation fifty yards away, and every home in the crowded neighborhood had a horse and hay and grain, the neighborhood had a problem with rats.

When I was more limber I crawled around under a floor, contorting myself in ways I’m not sure I could manage any more, and sprayed foam insulation into all the anciet rat holes I could find, for I had discovered that when you have four fires creating updrafts up four chimneys, the house needs to replace that lost air, and every chink becomes a vent. When it is below zero outside the inflow of air is below zero, and, if the inflow is directed towards water pipes under the floor, they freeze.

The foam insulation was only a temporary solution, because even though the rats didn’t return, field mice and voles apparently find foam insulation interesting stuff to chew on, and built new, smaller, modern, plastic tunnels through the old rat tunnels. Therefore I had to deal with the subzero-inflow situation again, and go spelunking beneath the house again, in the dead of winter.

That was quite an adventure, because creepy spiderwebs holding dead spiders covered with white mold were everywhere, and any place pipes leaked was sheer ice, and at times I had to inch along flat on my back holding a small flashlight in my teeth as I worked.  It was bitterly cold, and I risked burning the entire place down by thawing and repairing the pipes with a butane torch, and then I wrapped the pipes in round tubes of foam insulation, as I gave the mouse holes another shot of the canned, expanding insulation, feeling, as I did so, the softly whistling jets of inflowing, subzero air stop.  I recall thinking, at that time,  that where some men climb Mount Everest for adventure, my adventure is owning an old house.

Though it was a wonderful adventure, once is enough. I have no desire to do it again, however apparently I did not do the best job, and also the voles have returned. The pipes have started freezing again. To avoid crawling back into that strange world I’ve devised lazier ways of heating the pipes when they freeze.  Copper conducts heat wonderfully, and by strapping a running hairdryer to the pipes where they vanish (in a more accessible part of the ancient cellar,) and wrapping hot, wet washcloths where the pipes reappear beneath the kitchen sink, I can usually get back to work on my novel, and hear the water start running in the kitchen in a matter of minutes. However the way to avoid even that bother is to leave the water just barely trickling from the taps. It is on my “to do” list now, as soon as temperatures drop to zero.  (-17° Celsius.)

Easy, right? Even if the faucet is barely dripping, somehow the fact the water is flowing (especially the hot water) keeps it from freezing. So only a complete moron would neglect this worldly responsibility. However therein lies the rub. If “writing a novel” is on your “do do” list, and is among your worldly responsibilities, you face a tragic side-effect of creativity, which is that it makes you an air-head, a space-cadet, and a moron.

In other words, with a pleasant and dreamy expression I tapped away at the keyboard, occasionally glancing at my Christmas thermometer and marveling as the temperature sank to -5.8°,  and only went to bed at three in the morning, congratulating myself on how witty and clever I’d been, and I totally forgot to run the kitchen faucets.  When I blearily staggered from bed three hours later I wasn’t calling myself “witty” any more. I was calling myself a bonehead, (to begin with). Then I called myself worse, because the pipes were frozen more solidly than usual, and the hairdryer and hot-washcloth approach didn’t work, and I had to rush off to work with the pipes still frozen.

From time to time during the day I dashed into the house and repeated my procedure, but it continued to fail. My wife was not pleased, but she knew she could have left the water trickling herself, but has her own worldly responsibility that causes her to forget other worldly responsibilities.  For her it is not “creative writing”, but rather is “grandchildren”. Perhaps it occurred to her that, if she forgot her own failure to trickle-kitchern-faucetts, and called me a dunderhead for letting the pipes freeze, I might remind her. The potential for marital discord was there, but we did rather well in that respect, all things considered.

Fortunately the temperatures moderated during the day, rising slowly to 22.8° (-5 Celsius) and then failing to plunge as the early evening came on. Snowflakes continued to drift about, never accumulating, as the weak storm continued to drift to our southeast, never exploding into a nor’easter.

Not that I had time to sit by my computer and dwell on maps, (or dwell back in the year 1971 and play with the characters in my novel). Thawing pipes had risen to the supreme spot at the top of my “to do” list. Thawing pipes had become the very reason I was alive.

It’s funny how often this happens, when I try to write. It is as if the world is against me. I want to be a writer, but the world wants me to be a pipe-thawer. And there also are other niggling details that arise, making even being a pipe-thawer difficult. For example, one of my goats was limping, and that concerned me and required attention. Also the children at the Childcare all happen to think they should come first on my to-do list. To be quite honest, they may be right. They may be more important than some novel that it is likely not even fifty will read, and they are certainly far more important than blasted, stupid, accursed pipes that are frozen.

However after dark fell the children and goats were dealt with, and now it was time to face the pipes. Perhaps this was one of those times that separates the men from the boys. Perhaps it was time to grab the bull by the horns. Perhaps it was time to pry open the trap-door in the corner of the kitchen floor, and, contorting my body in a limbo that would make a yogi blanch, descend wormingly with a small flashlight in my teeth into a world where white-molded dead-spiders sway to and fro in bitter drafts whistling through colonial rat-holes.

On the other hand, I could give the hairdryer and hot washcloths another try.

I chose the latter, but dang it. It didn’t work. The hairdryer had been on so long I’m fairly sure the warranty was expired, and I’d even started a blaze in the cellar stove to warm that ceiling, but nothing worked. With a sad sigh I gave up on attending a lovely pot-luck supper, and instead faced a decent into spelunking.

“Hold on a second,” said the part of me that always looks for reasons to procrastinate from facing the the inevitable. “Surely we can think of a better way. Surely you have noticed the pipes that disappear from the accessible part of the cellar are only cool, and not cold. Surely you have also noticed the pipes that that reemerge beneath the kitchen sink are so friggin’ cold the first hot washcloths you applied soon were frozen stiff. Rather than spelunking, why don’t you just remove the floor beneath the kitchen sink. Surely that is the place to start.”

I confess. I listened to the voice of procrastination, and removed the floor beneath the kitchen sink.

Besides the usual fungus-whitened spiders, and the carefully insulated pipes which turned upwards at right-angle-elbows to head up to the sink, I saw icicles. The water dribbling down from my hot washcloths was so chilled as it descended it formed icicles at the elbows. Perhaps I should apply my hot washcloths at that spot. So I did. And, above my head, I could hear a most blessed sound: The sound of water starting to drip from the kitchen sink spigot, tapping against the bottom of the sink, just above my head.

Hallelujah! Hallelujah!

The trickle soon became a torrent, and my scientific conclusion is this: “I darn well better extend the insulation past the elbow.”

This may not seem like a big conclusion, compared to the mathematical conclusions of a great scientist like Einstein, or the poetic conclusions of a great poet like Shakespeare, however I assert it is a very important conclusion, if you really, honestly dare to be great.

After all, what is greatness?

It is not produced by the people who are spared all the bother of ordinary life by “financial security” in all it insidious forms. In terms of poets, I would say the ones who gain praise, flattery, and worst of all financial grants, are swiftest to produce claptrap that has no meaning to the truth ordinary men know. In the same manner, I would say it is the climate scientist who gain praise, flattery and worst of all financial grants, who have produced the complete fraud called “Global Warming,” and disassociated science with Truth.

So then, what is greatness?

It is what poor people do every day. It is to put aside what you want to do for what you must do. You want to write a novel but yiu must face the frozen pipes.

Big-shots in Washington are facing frozen pipes of their own. Will they put aside what they want for what they must do?  Will they match the humble decency of the poor?

(Even as I say this, I do not forget that I brought this all upon myself, by failing to trickle water from the kitchen taps in the first place. Nor do I forget to be grateful that the pipes never cracked and burst, and started spraying streams of water down where I’d have to be a spelunker to fix them.) (No matter how bad things get, they could be worse.)

With the kitchen again behaving as kitchens are suppose to behave I received a radiant smile from my wife, and returned to the keyboard of this computer, and discovered I was too tired to post anything. (Being good doesn’t mean you can write well, right away.) However I did have the satisfaction of visiting other sites and seeing others were hard at work.

Temperatures only dropped to 20° overnight (-7° Celsius) which seemed nice and balmy after recent cold. It doesn’t freeze pipes. On the morning radio there was even talk of the New England Patriots playing in the rain next Sunday.  Time to check the map:

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The weak low I was worried about was passing out to sea, but had left energy behind down in the Gulf of Mexico. That was the next ripple in the southern branch, and the next ripple in the northern branch was the Alberta Clipper that was plunging through Ontario. Would they “phase”, and join forces to make a big storm?

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Looking out the window I witnessed another gray day with stray snowflakes drifting about but never accumulating. At the market people complained the cold penetrated more though it was warmer,( which is a northern, winter version of warm weather’s, “It’s not the heat; its the humidity.”) I spent most of the day catching up with what I’d left undone while dealing with frozen pipes. Temperatures nearly touched freezing, reaching 31.8° ( -0.1° Celsius.) It was a dull, plodding sort of day, where I had to remind myself to pause and, if not sniff the roses, at least watch the snowflakes.

As usual, the things that made me chuckle most and lifted my spirits most involved the kids at the Childcare. For example, when I was driving six to kindergarten I noticed the hills were dimmer ahead, and knew we were are driving into a snow flurry, and thought it would be fun to make them aware of it. What I did was say, “I thought I saw a flake. Oh! I saw another. Look! Two More! And there’s four!  And More! And more!”  As I grew more excited as the flakes increased the children grew excited with me, and then abruptly a little girl exclaimed, “Maybe we should turn back!”

Playing catch-up all day left me drained at the end of the day, so I again sat at the computer and enjoyed the work of others without working myself. The map showed the northern branch failing to connect with the southern, and the southern moisture sliding out to sea rather harmlessly.  It seemed I could relax and get back to my novel.

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I awoke this morning to streaked skies, and saw my Christmas thermometer report temperatures had dropped to 14.7° (-9.6° Celsius) during the night, but had then risen despite the nearly clear skies and nearly calm wind to 19.2° ( -7.1 Celsius). Smoke from our chimney drifted off to the northwest, indicating a slight southeast wind from the milder ocean. All signs were for warmer weather, so I checked the maps.

The southern stream was fading away out to sea, failing to “phase” with the Alberta Clipper fading away to the north, but I did not like the look of the next arctic high expanding behind the Alberta Clipper, nor the look of the cold front it pushed towards us. The cold keeps coming. I planned to work on our firewood stocks, and asked my middle son if he might help a little as he left for work. He said he might squeeze a little woodwork in, before heading up to see his girlfriend in Maine this weekend. I was fairly sure I knew how important firewood was, compared to a girlfriend.

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The above radar map shows the cold air just starting to brew up some lake-effect snow east of Lake Ontario, hinting at the power of the cold air. The next map shows the cold air brewing squalls across New England:

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Temperatures, which had again nearly made it to freezing in the morning, took an abrupt dive, and dipped below 10° (-12° Celsius) shortly after sunset. I am making sure to leave the water in the kitchen sink trickling tonight.


That would make a good ending for this post. Indeed it was the ending I planned, when I was finally caught up, and had a few moments before work to start this post, this morning. It seemed a fine moral tale: 1.)The artist neglects a minor worldly responsibility, 2,) the artist pays the price, 3.) the artist makes amends, 4.) the artist finally has time to write.

However life is never so simple. Shortly after I arrived at work, when I was up to my neck in small children and busy loading six into a van to take them to kindergarten, I received word my middle son had been in a crash on his way to work.

I’ll skip most of the details, but mention two.

First, I will say that just as I neglected the worldly detail of trickling the water from the tap on a sub-zero night, he neglected the worldly responsibility of always focusing straight ahead. Perhaps he was looking towards Maine towards his girlfriend, but when he hit the brakes he stopped four inches too late. The other car was undamaged, but he buckled his hood and ruptured his radiator. A swarm of vultures immediately descended. (The radiator fluid was “environmental damage” that required the local firetruck to serve as a hazmat crew, he was not allowed to drive his car to the side of the road as the local officer called the local tow truck, and so on.)

Second, you have to imagine me facing down a vulture who happens to be a bullet-head who operates a tow truck for a living, as a snow squall filled the air with billowing snow.

(I actually like poor guys who drive tow trucks more than I like the college professors who devise economic policy and insurance regulations, but do not like how tow truck drivers think college students are rich as professors. They figure you must be rich to go to colleges they never attended. My son was told his Subaru Outback was only worth $2000,00, and repairs would cost $3000.00, so his vehicle was officially totaled, but the magnanimous guy would offer $100.00 for the car. (In fact repairs might be that high, to restore the vehicle to “mint condition,” but to get a vehicle back on the road only requires “passable condition,” and I’d say that would cost $800.00. Furthermore, even as junk a Subaru Outback is valuable, (they are good in snow, and some joke it is the “State Car” of New Hampshire,) and can be sold for $600.00 with ease. This fellow was ripping off my son, mistaking him as being a rich college professor when he was a poor student.

I understand tow truck operators live in a rough world of bizarre insurance policies and legal regulations, flashing police lights and smashed cars and wailing ambulances and weeping women, and aren’t rich. Most people are whisked away from their wrecked car and receive a “loaner” and later a check from their insurance company and a new car. But college students only have the cheapest insurance, that covers others cars but not their own, (if they have insurance at all.)

I figure economics professors may deserve to be ripped off, for they mooch off tax-dollars and make others work as they don’t, but their students, who slaved to get degrees that are often worthless these days, and who have college loans the size of mortgages, don’t deserve to be ripped off.  However I suppose it is hard for tow truck operators to make this subtle distinction. They don’t understand that, compared to college students, they themselves are the rich fat-cats.)

Anyway, the situation represents a societal “frozen pipe” I sure hope I never have to thaw. It was hard enough to just extract my son’s car from the fellow’s vulture-clutches, and away to a friendly garage.

I’ll let your imagination fill in the details.

I will say it was the last thing I expected, when I got up this morning. I will not say it is a bad thing that I experienced it. In fact I think it would be a good thing if the people down in Washington DC actually experienced what the insurance regulations they legislate create.

This is not to say I don’t sometimes wish I could afford a staff of assistants and aids who would do this stuff for me. Likely most poets and poor people wish they were gentleman farmers with farmhands they could rebuke like Lord Jesus rebuked Doubting Thomas and Unfaithful Peter, farmhands who were disciples.

Instead most poor people and poets face the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune in a most matter-of-fact way. It is just the next frozen pipe. You take them one at a time.

Perhaps that is why I like weather maps. They hint at where the next frozen pipe may come from. Tonight’s map suggests it, as usual, will come from the north.

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Looking at this map, it seems that after the current arctic blast we may get a break, and the Patriots may play American football in a warm stadium next Sunday, however if you look to the map at the start of this post you see little sign of the high pressure now parked over the Great Lakes and now freezing our tails off, this evening.  In the same manner, an arctic high out of sight at the top of this map might come down from off the map and be freezing our tails off by this coming Sunday. The cold keeps coming.

Anyone with sense knows we mortals don’t control the weather, (unless we have extraordinary powers of prayer.) Unless and until we can make it rain when we command it to rain, we don’t make the weather dance to our tune, but rather we dance to the weather’s tune.

In like manner, in this thing called life, some think they command the Creator to dance to their tune, and these delusional types hold office in Washington DC. Others dance to the Creator’s tune, and they are called the poor, who learn to hear a piper playing in frozen pipes.

Who do you suppose will be most blessed?

9 thoughts on “LOCAL VIEW —FROZEN PIPES—

  1. Caleb years ago I had a squirrel problem in my attic and read how to seal them out with the spray foam and window screening … the good old metal screening. You just roll up an appropriate size chunk of screening and insert it in the varmints access point and then foam away. The combination of foam and metal seems to beat even the most determined pest since I suppose the metal is enough to turn them off and send them seeking easier chewing … which unfortunately might not be too far away from your description of the old house. Anyway it seems to be a permanent fix in my experience.
    Good luck with the pipes!

    • That sounds like a good idea. I think I’ll try it. Hopefully I won’t have to do it until the weather is nice and warm. Then I’ll plan a final spelunking adventure into the depths beneath the kitchen floor, and patch up all the leaks.

      That room was originally a cold pantry, at the rear of the house next to a small stable for horses, but now it’s a kitchen, overlooking a dining room where the stables were. Perhaps the floor was carefully designed to be cold, to keep the cold pantry cold.

      We made it down to -1.3° (-18.5 Celsius) this morning, and the pipes didn’t freeze. The weathermen didn’t see this cold shot coming, even three days ago. Joe Bastardi thinks these cold highs are going to continue, but will be smaller for around five days, which will allow milder air to sneak north, but then some monster highs will come south and make the news towards the end of the month. We’ll see.

      I hope you are recovering swiftly.

  2. Recovering yes, but I wouldn’t call it swift and I’ve got a bad case of what is best described as diaper rash on my tummy around the stoma and it is a real pain in the ass (get it). However I have modified some of the methods they taught me to apply what is called the flange to my tummy and also using a different paste to seal the thing … it essentially has a wax like ring that is just like the toilet wax ring and I suspect the ring irritated my skin so I have switched to a paste that comes from a tube and I apply in a circle & the paste seems much less irritating and seals as well or better than the ring. Needless to say at 60 I’m developing a whole mess of new skills and dexterity that I wish I had never needed to acquire. On a positive note I can entertain family and friends with a symphony of guttural noises from my small intestine poking out my tummy which range from raspberries to trumpeting and a most silly putt, putt, putt like a small outboard motor 🙂 … your daycare kids would love me when what I call “my little friend” gets active!
    You have to laugh at this or it could make u go postal!!
    When you are crawling about with the flashlight in your teeth think of how much more pleasant your predicament is compared to me trying to attach a flange to my belly with what at times feels like 10 thumbs on two left hands. As u might have guessed all this stuff is of a glue like nature that is sticky beyond belief and so u get one shot at it and once it touches your skin it is stuck.
    Good talking to you Caleb …. enjoy the weekend.

    • It is good to see the doctors didn’t remove your sense of humor.

      I’ll remember you, each time I feel like griping and grumbling.

      Did you have much advance warning that you’d need the operation, or did you get blind-sided?

      • Well in hindsight there were some signs that I ignored & put down to just becoming a geezer and so the system was getting weird. I love my coffee and it started to have a weird effect and occasionally gave me the runs but I just cut back my coffee intake and that helped for a while. Other than that nothing until some blood showed up in the stool and that sent me to the doc and then a colonoscopy and then under the knife.
        Again in hindsight after 50 they suggest a colonoscopy every 5 years or so but I was as healthy as could be except for my arthritic knees & that is likely from 40 + years of running including some marathons. In hindsight I over did the running but it was easy to fit into a busy schedule, it keep me sane in a stressful work environment and it kept me slim and fit with great cardio.
        So the cancer was just one of those things … I like to joke that you have grab all you can while you can because no one is getting out alive!
        Hopefully I’m grabbing for a bunch more years once I’m healed up & have gotten rid of this temporary poop bag.

  3. Caleb, as a transplanted Mainer and owner owner of several old houses, I hear your troubles with pipes. A trick a plumbers showed me on copper pipes, no guarantees, was to use a car battery between two points of the pipe (between an end and other side of the frozen section) and use the heat generated in the pipe to thaw it out. I can see lots of dangers in this, but he swore by it. Might be worth talking to somebody local about it.
    On my worst pipes (north wall under sink) I used a pipe heater set at 40 degrees and strapped/wrapped to the pipe, which conducted enough heat along the pipe to keep the run through the wall open. That, and making sure the sink doors were left open at night were all the tricks I had.
    Good luck, I love following your blog.

    • I’m glad you enjoy my outlooks.

      I’m going to ask around about the car battery idea. With my luck, I’d attach it and either the water heater would explode, or someone sitting on the toilet would give out a yelp.

      • Caleb,
        I finally saw my plumber the other day (was thawing out a neighbor’s pipes, and checked on the car charger idea. Turns out what he has looks like one but is actually a specialized box that delivers around 50 amps at 24 volts DC. It comes with some heavy duty cables to hook it to a section of pipe to heat it up just enough to get I trickle of water flowing around the blockage and melt it out. I looked the devices up on the net, and they’re not cheap, so probably not a good solution for you. He said hecan justify it because he uses it all the time, and nothing else works as well.

      • Thanks for the heads-up.

        I suppose you would want to attach your ground before you attached your live wire.

        That way you would be sure the electricity would take the shortest route, and melt the ice between.

        If you attached your live wire first, you might hear an immediate yelp upstairs.

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