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Pipes, car batteries at risk when temperatures dip

| Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2014, 2:12 p.m.
Jeff Kumf of Port Vue fuels up at the Sunoco station along Walnut Street in McKeesport on Monday afternoon. Experts advise having at least  half of a tank of gas to prevent fuel line freezing.
Jennifer R. Vertullo | Daily News
Jeff Kumf of Port Vue fuels up at the Sunoco station along Walnut Street in McKeesport on Monday afternoon. Experts advise having at least half of a tank of gas to prevent fuel line freezing.

With temperatures expected to hover around the zero-degree mark through Wednesday, homes and automobiles are at risk.

This is the season for frozen water lines, heater failures and dead car batteries, but there are ways to protect against weather-related damage.

Anyone who has had a frozen drain or water line at home — or even those who haven't — should be on alert now, Elizabeth Township-based plumber Bob Frazier said.

Pipes most at risk are those located in drafty areas, between noninsulated walls or in crawl spaces where they are not exposed to interior heat.

“Turn on cold and hot water just a trickle,” Frazier said. Moving water is less apt to freeze. If there has been freezing in the past, it's best to run the tap near the problem point.

Most homes built in recent decades have insulated pipes, but pipes in older homes may be exposed, Frazier said. An electric heat tape can be wrapped around pipes to prevent freezes.

If a pipe already is outfitted with heat tape, Frazier said this is the time to plug it in. Heat tapes and other temporary devices such as electric heaters should be equipped with a thermostat and meet Underwriters Laboratories' safety specifications, he said.

Frazier cautions against using a handheld hair dryer to thaw pipes. Heat expansion from the dryer, especially in copper lines, can result in a rupture.

Drain lines can freeze, and in some minor cases that can be fixed by applying powdered calcium chloride or table salt. If that fails, Frazier said, it's best to call a plumber who will have special equipment to snake or thaw the pipe.

Precautions should be taken when using a portable heater.

Chief Shane Spielvogle of United Fire Rescue in East McKeesport said faulty heaters and heater placement can result in serious safety risks.

Equipment intended for outdoor use only — such as a barbecue grill — never should be used in the home.

Outdated heaters that burn kerosene and propane can put residents at risk from exposure to carbon monoxide.

A carbon monoxide emissions detector should be used in conjunction with any fuel-burning heater.

Electric heaters can pose dangers, too.

“Electric space heaters can overload circuits in the home,” Spielvogle said. For that reason, only one heater should be used at a time.

Heaters can spark fires if they are placed too close to drapes, furniture or newspaper.

Spielvogle advises keeping heaters at least 18 inches away from combustibles items and, if possible, placing them on a hard surfaced floor or sheet of plywood.

“People have good intentions for alternative heating,” the chief said. “Unfortunately, they're not always the safest. It's best to use your common sense.”

Where automobiles are concerned, Steele City Auto owner Frank Steele said there are many preventive steps drivers can take to avoid getting stranded in the cold.

“First and foremost, get your battery tested,” Steele said, noting a battery that functions fine in normal weather can fail when temperatures get really low.

It's important to give vehicles at least 10 minutes to warm up before driving, Steele said. Motor oil settles and needs time to warm before it starts cycling to adequately protect moving engine parts.

Steele said one of the most common cold weather problems he sees is broken windshield wiper arms.

“We actually had four broken wiper arms last week,” he said.

“Never turn your wipers on until you've scraped the window and freed the wiper blades from the ice,” he said.

Steele said an application of lock de-icer or spray lubricant, such as WD-40, can protect against frozen door locks.

During winter, Steele said drivers should keep their fuel tank at least half full to prevent gasoline from gelling.

He said drivers should add a fuel line anti-freeze approximately every five fill-ups to reduce moisture problems.

Eric Slagle is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-664-9161 ext. 1966, or

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