CASE STUDY: Preventing Frozen Pipes in a Seasonal Cottage Landscape

Need to prevent frozen pipes in a water supply system from a lake or well? This case study shows how one couple did it.

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Mike and Alice Ogden’s lakeside cottage on Manitoulin Island, Canada

Following a growing Canadian trend, Mike and Alice Ogden left their city home in Georgetown, Ontario, Canada and moved into their lakeside cottage full time a few years ago. As they quickly discovered, one of the toughest technical obstacles involves bringing year-round running water to cottages and outbuildings reliably, in a landscape blessed with little soil. The challenge is keeping water lines from freezing in winter, but with the right approach it’s certainly doable. The main thing is getting specialized plumbing equipment working for you in the right way.

The Ogdens get their water from a drilled well that’s 50 feet from their cottage, in an area that never offers more than a foot and a half of soil cover. Without a heating cable of some kind, there’s no way their waterline could keep flowing during cold weather, and that’s what led me to a man named Lorne Heise.

A trained electrician, Heise left Toronto for a new life in the cottage country of Muskoka, Canada, where he launched a company called Heat-Line (www.heatline.com; 800-584-4944). Heise is the enthusiastic creator of some of the most effective frost-proof plumbing systems I’ve found, and I got to install his Carapace product firsthand on the Ogden job. It includes a heating cable specially molded into the pipe for mechanical protection, but that’s not the most remarkable thing about this system.

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Thermostatic control box of the Heatline system.

What I found most impressive was the design of the heating cable. Unlike other heating cables I’ve installed, this one has the frugal ability to incrementally change heat output anywhere along its length as needed, generating more or less warmth as it senses temperature differences in different sections of pipe. Not only does this feature reduce the risk of overheating plastic waterlines, it also makes sure the least possible power is drawn to keep water flowing. The system also includes a thermostat that automatically shuts things down when the temperature is high enough to keep the waterline from freezing without electricity. At $20 a foot for the Carapace pipe, and another $500 for the thermostat and foam pipe insulation, the Ogden’s system isn’t cheap. And while there are certainly less expensive choices out there, I haven’t found any that are as physically tough and economical to operate as this one. The system even stood firm after an unintentionally harsh test it underwent right after installation.

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Open trench and insulated water pipe of the Ogden’s system. Smaller pipe is electrical conduit protecting power lines to the submersible pump.

With temperatures dropping below -15ºC the first night after the pipe went in, the Heat-Line thermostat automatically switched on and off as needed, keeping the Ogden’s water frost-free and running, just like it was supposed to. The surprising thing was that the trench wasn’t even filled in yet. The pipes were completely exposed to creeping frost and frigid air, yet water kept flowing.

The next technical challenge the Ogdens faced is a common difficulty for cottagers. They needed to bring their waterline up through open air and into the cottage while maintaining the vital layer of insulation around the Carapace pipe. The Heat-Line system we used includes flexible foam tubes that fit over the heated pipe to slow heat loss and minimize electricity use. I covered this insulation in 4” ABS drain pipe to protect it from damage and moisture. The challenge showed up when the ABS turned 90º to enter the cabin and there wasn’t enough room in the rigid pipe elbow to stuff the foam insulation through. That’s what prompted me to think of something unusual.

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Foam-filled 4 inch ABS pipe containing heated water line as it rises and enters cabin.

I knew that leaving the pipe bare inside where it entered the cottage might not be reliable, so I drilled 3/8” diameter holes every 6 inches along the empty ABS, then filled the area with spray foam, surrounding the heated pipe inside with durable, energy-saving insulation. It works like a charm.

Heated water line systems are an essential part of bringing civilized life to cottage country, and they aren’t only for use with wells, either. Heated systems work just as well if you’re piping water directly from a lake or river. Either way, a little bit of heat makes a big difference.

Sidebar: Faster, Better Way to Prime Cottage Water Systems
When it comes to cottage water systems, frost protection isn’t universal. Pipes and pumps typically have to be completely drained at the end of the season to avoid freezing, and that’s one reason thousands of Canadian cottagers are forced to prime their water systems every spring. The usual approach is to haul buckets of water up from the lake, pouring them one at a time down a little hole in the top of the pump until the intake line is full. It’s a huge pain. Little do many long suffering cottagers know that with a hand pump and a few basic fittings, their annual priming chore could be a whole lot easier.

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Priming port that allows faster, simpler priming of seasonal water systems.

Head to your local hardware store along with the photo you see here and get the shut-off valve and a connection fittings you need to temporarily attach a hand pump to the intake end of your intake pipe. They’re all standard pieces of hardware. I use a marine bulge pump called a Guzzler here at my place. Remove the priming plug on your pump as usual, but then use your hand pump to push water up into the intake pipe from the lake, filling the pipe and priming your cottage pump at the same time. Close the priming valve, remove the pump, then drop the intake line in the lake or river. Switch your cottage pump on, then relax. Unless there’s a break in the line somewhere, pressure will build hassle-free and your pump will switch off, ready for another season in cottage country.

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Posted on December 9th, 2014

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