Design & DIY

How to make your three-season plumbing work all winter

Copper pipes By OlegDoroshin/Shutterstock

Our 800 sq. ft. log-and-frame cabin two hours outside of Whitehorse was never designed to be lived in from November to March. In our first winter, plummeting temperatures and frozen pipes regularly set us scrambling for every space heater, hair dryer, and heating blanket we could get our hands on. On -30°C mornings, I opened the kitchen faucet with trepidation. Would there be water? Showers? Coffee? The rest of the day hung in the balance.

We’re hardly alone in our struggles with fair-weather plumbing. A growing number of cottagers are embracing the colder months. Some are attempting to stretch their three-season water systems into four. Others, conceding to Mother Nature, are taking a rustic and more old-fashioned approach (e.g., drilling a hole in the ice or melting snow).

Choosing the best option for you comes down to budget, how often you visit the cottage, the conveniences you want while you’re there, and how literally you care to interpret the Zen proverb “chop wood, carry water.”

The four-season system

If your ice-auguring days are behind you and you don’t mind paying to keep the cottage heated all winter, upgrading to a four-season system may be well worth the investment—especially if you’re planning to retire to the cottage, or live there part- or full-time (as we did).

The goal is to freeze-proof each stage of the water’s journey, from intake to kitchen sink to septic tank. Simple though this may sound, there are many factors to account for, including the distance from the water source to the cottage, the soil depth, and whether you’re retrofitting or installing new pipe. Your best bet is to contact an expert early on, before you make any decisions.

How to repair heating cable

My husband and I found that out the hard way, purchasing an off-the-shelf heating cable kit at the hardware store. He spent hours crawling around in a dusty crawl space, running it along a pipe through several floor joists. Had we bought a different style of heating cable, we could have saved ourselves hours of installation time.

A company that specializes in winter-proof systems should be able to help you think through the overall design and navigate the vast array of application-specific products.

Protect your intake

Choose a location in the lake where your water intake will sit below the ice and won’t freeze. On most lakes in southern and central Ontario, this means 1.5–2 meters below the water level and 30 cm above the lake bottom to avoid sediment. If you’re new to an area, ask your neighbours about the typical ice thickness on your lake.

Don’t use a concrete block to weigh down the pipe. “Blocks can be sharp and chafe the pipe,” said Lorne Heise, the founder and CEO of Heat-Line, a company that specializes in freeze-protection systems. Alternative plumber-approved options include a shore or lake-bottom rock, or concrete, pre-set in a form. You can protect the pipe—from wave action and ice floes, for example—by running it inside a sacrificial conduit (i.e., a pipe with a larger diameter).

Cottage Q&A: How can we prevent our water supply from freezing?

Time to dig in

“Atmosphere is the harshest environment,” says Heise. “It can go to 40 below with wind chill.” Your first line of defense is to run pipe below the frost line. Usually, this means burying the pipe (1.3-2 metres deep in central and southern Ontario). While material costs may be as cheap as dirt, you’ll likely have to rent an excavator to the tune of at least $250 per day.

Turn up the heat

If you can’t dig below the frost line, you can use heating cable to keep your water and sewage lines ice-free. Self-regulating heating cable emits heat along its length and can automatically adjust its output to compensate for differing temperatures along the pipe.

For those retrofitting an existing system, in-pipe heating cable can be run inside a water pipe. “You can, in some cases, push them in 100 to 150 feet,” says Heise. While pricing varies, 100 feet of potable in-pipe cable with a thermostat can cost up to $2,300 in materials (plus separate installation costs—this varies).

On-pipe heating cable is attached to the outside of the pipe and costs half as much as in-pipe systems. It’s not immersed in water and doesn’t have to meet potability standards. So, there’s a cash savings: 100-feet of on-line heat tape with a thermostat would cost approximately $1,300. While less expensive, it’s not a great option for retrofitting underground lines (as you would have to dig them up in order to install the heating cable on the pipe). Yes, using any kind of heating cable will increase your power bill. However, you can reduce its energy usage by insulating the pipe (more on that below).

It’s possible to find further efficiency by putting the cable on a thermostat or timer. A self-regulating heating cable can adjust its temperature but not turn itself off completely and is therefore always consuming power while turned on. A thermostat or timer can turn the product on and off while maintaining pipe temperature; one hundred feet of properly installed and insulated heating cable could add less than $50 (at 14 cents per KWH) to your winter monthly bills.

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Insulation is a powerful ally in your battle against the elements. “The minute we insulate the pipes, the efficiency of our heating cable is up to 80 per cent better,” says Heise. Above ground, Heise often recommends self-sealing closed-cell polyethylene foam sleeves, also known as insulated wrap, with a minimum ¾” wall. “They just look like a pool noodle that kids play with,” he says, “except that they’re black and they’ve got a bore in them.” They can be found at hardware stores or online in 6-foot lengths. To help protect the works from nibbling critters and errant off-roaders, one option is to slide the pipe and insulation into a 10-cm corrugated poly drain pipe.

In the ground, you can add insulation to the above-mentioned assembly by cutting blocks of closed-cell extruded polystyrene insulation and laying them on the top and sides of the drainpipe. Not all heating cable systems can be insulated, says Heise—something to keep in mind when you’re shopping around for heating cable options.

Can’t bury the line? Limited power? Use gravity

The options above might be impractical for a cottage that’s on rocky ground (where it’s impossible to bury line) or off-grid (with limited means to power long runs of heating cable). An alternative is to use a drain-back system, which relies on gravity to drain the supply line before water can freeze in it.

Drain-back systems use a submersible pump to push water up to the cottage. Once the indoor pressure tank is full, the pump shuts off and the supply line drains back to the lake, well, or river. While simple in theory, improvised DIY versions often run into issues with air shooting through the faucets or back-spinning the pump (which risks motor damage).

In the mid-1990s, cottager Adam Soszka ironed out these wrinkles and perfected a self-draining system at his family cottage on Fairholme Lake, Ont. He went on to build a successful business around it. “We have a patented valve assembly which my father invented,” says Mark Soszka, Adam’s son and the owner of Cottage Water Supply. “The valve facilitates draining the line down to the lake without back-spinning the pump, and with a good amount of speed.” The Cottage Water Supply system also includes an inline check valve in front of the water tank to maintain water pressure inside the building and an air release valve that automatically allows air in and out of the system. “A proper system should not get any air in your plumbing,” says Soszka.

Cottage Water Supply, one of the few companies that specializes in these systems, sells DIY drain-back packages in the range of $3,500-$5,000 (including the pump, pressure tank, pipe, heating cable, and various fittings).

Over time, we’ve learned our home’s ice-forming idiosyncrasies, sourced out her cold spots, and added insulation and heating cable. In our view, it’s been well worth the time and money. Rather than waking up panicked on frosty mornings, we take a shower, brew a coffee, and welcome the crystalline air and blue skies that come with a cold snap.

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