June 22, 2018
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Reflecting on laws of thermodynamics in middle of winter

By Tom Gocze, BDN Staff

We are pretty much at the time that we all pine for in the summer (note sarcasm injection) — the middle of winter.

We are in the midst of another cold snap that makes most flatlanders run for Florida or Central America. Some might consider this cold weather the price for living in Maine. I always look at it as a test of one’s mettle.

We always pass the test since we know that we can stoke up the wood stove and laugh at the evening’s chill without further concern.

Today we are just about at the midpoint of the actual heating season. These coldest days are the days that we design our heating systems for. Heating design for central Maine assumes that minus 10 will be the lowest temperature. Of course, it gets a lot colder in northern and western Maine. We fortunate southern and central Mainers only have to deal with minus 10.

This is the fun time when we get to analyze why the heating system is not working properly. These cold nights can offer a lot of clues as to how your home functions. Many seem to be fixated on the condensation that forms on the inside of windows. It appears almost like magic and with the regularity of taxes on these cold mornings.

Windows are usually the coldest surfaces that are visible in our homes, and that is where any moisture in the inside air will condense on these cold nights. If it is a problem, wipe it up and get on with life.

We are living in a gigantic thermodynamics test chamber in this kind of weather and should try to take advantage of it. All the cracks open up in the house. Cold air comes in through cracks that just are not there during the warmer months. What a great opportunity to tighten things up!

One killer problem for many people in this kind of weather is frozen pipes. There is never any joy when a pipe freezes, the water stops flowing or the heat stops coming. Such problems are a sign from some almighty power for you to fix what’s wrong now. There is no reason not to, because it will happen again.

Almost all of the plumbing in every house that I mess with has PEX tubing. This plastic tubing is freeze-tolerant and will not burst if frozen. This is a nice thing to have this week, if there is a crack somewhere leaking cold air onto your plumbing.

If you have a pipe freeze, you have to exercise extreme caution when trying to thaw it with any kind of heat source. Old houses are constructed of very dry wood and it does not take much to ignite it. Never, ever use an open flame to thaw a frozen pipe. If in doubt, hire a professional. It is not that expensive, compared to your safety.

If I ever go away in the winter, overnight, I always go down to the basement and turn off the water feed to the house. I also relieve the pressure on the pipes by opening a faucet briefly. This is a simple thing, but it can eliminate a ton of headaches if you ever go away and the heat fails. In such a case, your house can freeze solid and minimal water will leak, regardless of whatever type of plumbing you have.

There’s not much to do on these cold winter nights, except think about the world we live in and things like thermodynamics. We are all at the mercy of the laws of thermodynamics this time of year.

Y’know, those mosquitoes were not that bad last June.

Questions for Tom Gocze should be mailed to The Home Page, Bangor Daily News, P.O. Box 1329, Bangor 04402-1329. A library of reference material and a home-project blog are at http://www.bangornews.com/thehomepage.html.

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