A lesson learned in the cold, wet basement

A burst pipe caused mayhem at a reporter's Oswego house during last week's snowstorm. Pictured above is the ruptured pipe.

OSWEGO – As the result of a series of exceptionally poor decisions, a friend of mine years ago awoke handcuffed to a Texas hospital bed.

That situation, in my opinion, will always hold the crown of "worst way to wake up," but on Feb. 16, when I was roused by a 6 a.m. cry from my wife – "The basement's flooded! DO SOMETHING!" – surely must be high in the running.

My wife, 4-year-old son and I have lived in our home on the city of Oswego's west side since 2011. It's an old structure, built in the 1890s, with copper water piping and a large, unfinished basement used mainly for storage. We've never had problems with our water until Tuesday, Feb. 16.

She was right – running downstairs while pulling on my boots, water was pouring from an alcove in the corner of that unfinished basement. It was in that moment I wished I knew more about plumbing, but I knew one thing for certain – stop the water, accomplished by shutting off the main water supply, which was also in the basement.

My wife and I took a second to assess the inch of water in our basement. We were soaked and now very much awake at 6:30 a.m. Our son was somehow still asleep. We'd experienced one of the more dreaded winter household catastrophes — a burst pipe, just below our kitchen sink.

We called a plumber, who removed and replaced the 6-inch, 80-cent piece of pipe in minutes. The fluctuation in temperature the night before had caused a buildup of pressure surrounding a section of pipe that had frozen.

Unable to handle the stress, the water erupted out of a one-inch hole.

My family was lucky in this incident, as we were home at the time, but a burst pipe while not at home can have devastating effects.

As with most household issues, an ounce of prevention can be worth a pound of cure, and savvy homeowners can take a few simple steps to prevent pipe freezing — and hopefully avoid critical damage.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Service, one of the most important yet overlooked preventative measures is simple insulation of your pipes that may be exposed to extreme cold. Foam insulation or even wrapping newspaper around pipes can be the difference between safely flowing water or a pipe blowout.

"The best thing you can do is keep the space heated, because you don't want a draft blowing where pipes are close," said Tim Donovan of the United Association of Plumbers & Steamfitters Local 73, located in Oswego, who said he's seen a number of burst pipes. "This winter it's been warm for so long, then the temperature just dropped out of sight during that storm When extreme weather is expected, homeowners should take care to leave a small drip running overnight, according to FEMA, which says "even a trickle" will prevent pipes from freezing by keeping a constant flow of water moving through pipes.

Before an emergency occurs, locate the shut-off valves for the water supply line entering a home. If a pipe bursts, the sooner the water supply is turned off, the more damage you can avoid. Make sure to label the shut-off valve and educate all household members on where it is located.

In the event of a pipe freezing — which can be easily detected by the stoppage of water flow to one or more of your fixtures — remove any insulation and completely open all faucets, FEMA recommends. If you can identify the frozen section, pour hot water over the pipes, starting where pipes are most exposed to cold. A space heater or hairdryer are also acceptable.

Do not, under any circumstance, use an open flame to warm pipes suspected of freezing.

Lieutenant Paul Conzone of the Oswego Fire Department says his crews have been working "all week" dealing with burst pipes and water in basements, and says if you're experiencing a burst pipe, leave the heavy work to the professionals.

"Definitely call 911 if you have a burst pipe and we can take a look. We don't want people venturing down in their basements if there's water," said Conzone. "We have tools to survey the area and see if it's safe, and if not we can call the utility companies to shut off electricity and gas." Conzone said a major hazard when it comes to standing water in basements is the possibility of electrocution if the water reaches an electrical device. Older gas appliances can have pilot lights put out by water but continue to produce dangerous fumes.

"If there's any water damage to an electrical appliance, that will need to be checked out by a certified electrician," said Conzone.

More than a week after our family's crisis, our basement is dry and none of us are much the worse for wear.

Thanks to our great family support system, we were able to get through these trying times, but learned a valuable lesson – don't take your water, or your pipes, for granted.

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