The recent string of days below zero degrees here in Minneapolis have been tough. Even hardy Minnesotans, accustomed to chilly winter temps, have stayed indoors as much as possible in order to avoid the danger and discomfort of the extreme cold.
So what’s a person to do when the cold tries to come inside and ruin the fun there, too?
The other day, Ms. Bungalow came downstairs to tell me that there was no hot water for her shower. At first I expected trouble with the water heater until she explained that the master bathroom sink had hot water, but when she turned the hot water handle in the shower, nothing came out. Not hot water. Not cold water. Nothing.
Now I started to brace myself for something ugly. The shower in the master bedroom is built against an exterior wall and the way the room is laid out, the supply pipes must travel at least three feet along that cold outside wall. I expected there was a frozen or possibly burst pipe behind the drywall, and without an access panel for that crawlspace, I was afraid I’d have to rip the wall open.
The least conspicuous way for me to access the pipes was through the linen closet that shares two walls with the master bath. After removing the shelves, I tore out all the old beadboard panelling on the back and left walls. After pulling down a sheet of insulation, I uncovered an insulated utility chase the previous owners must have thoughtfully included when they added the master bath.
I crawled inside the utility chase and found no signs of burst pipes. Moving to the outside wall, I followed the water supply pipes for the shower. They were cold, but did not look damaged.
At the outside wall, I discovered that the back wall of my bathroom was actually framed a few inches inside the exterior studs, leaving a cavity about four inches wide. But instead of running the pipes against the interior wall– or even through these non-structural wall studs– the water pipes for the shower had been placed right against the outside wall.
I crawled out of the utility chase to consider how I was going to thaw the pipes and what I would do if I discovered a leak when the water began to flow. After looking in a couple of my reference books, I decided to try running the shower again, just on a whim. This time, water began to flow from the hot water side and soon the shower was working normally. I guess just opening the utility chase to the warm air from inside the house was enough to unfreeze the blockage in the shower pipes. A return inspection in the utility chase turned up no new drips or evidence of damaged pipes. Considering the worst case scenario of a burst pipe on the top level of my house, I came away from this incident feeling pretty lucky.
For the time being, I am leaving the linen closet unfinished so that I can tackle a couple nagging issues in the master bath while I have easy access to the utilities. Eventually, I think I will have to re-route those shower supply pipes to within the interior bathroom wall. In the meantime, we are trying to keep the linen closet door open on severely cold days to try to send a little heat back to the pipes in that utility space.