Winter in Minnesota

We woke up at 4am to a strange gurgling sound and a flooded kitchen. Y’all know what that means: emergency plumbing service call and a big bill to come. I am now waiting by the phone for a return call.

Also, had to clean up the mess, and this was dirty, foul, black water. I’m a bit worried about what that means.


  1. Nick Gotts says

    Argh! My sympathies. Unfortunately, when this happens due to weather, plumbers are likely to be extremely busy.

  2. msadesign says

    This has happened to me, PZ (before moving to SW Florida, that is). It sucks. Sorry.

  3. embertine says

    Can I really be the first to post “Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!”?
    *shakes head, more in sorrow than in anger*

  4. says

    Marcoli @4 – I’m guessing, but given the title, I’m assuming that the water in the pipes froze up.

    Water in the pipes doesn’t freeze evenly – some spots will get colder than others, and freeze first. This can create sections where there is liquid water that can’t move along the pipe. As that water freezes, it’s going to expand, and this causes pressure on the pipes. This causes the joints to burst, or in extreme cases the pipe casing can rupture.

    You prevent this by insulating the pipes, and by having heating on – but the current cold snap is so severe, I’m guessing that the heating isn’t adequate in PZ’s basement or kitchen.

    Wether it can be easily fixed, either by PZ or by a plumber, depends a lot on where the breakage is.

  5. stevem says

    re 8:
    Good advice about preventing freezing pipes. You left out, however, leave your faucets dripping 24/7. The little flow of water may prevent freezing, but even if it does freeze, the tap being open will let it expand without bursting the pipes.

    re nada:

    I saw a video last night (on Facebook, <shame on me>) of a strange, glacier-like expansion of ice from a lake, over a yard, eventually pushing into the houses there and bursting through someone’s door. This “Polar Vortex” has been having some very profound effects. Ignore Rush and Trump who say this was invented by those hoaxers to prove AGW.

  6. says

    stevem @9 – I grew up in the tropics, and live in a subtropical climate now; my experience with freezing pipes is purely theoretical. I can see that the dripping tap would certainly help – though you could still get a frozen plug below the tap, with water backing up behind it, I suspect. OTH, because the tap would stop dripping when the plug forms, you’ll have a bit of warning…

  7. Callinectes says

    Does it smell like sewage? That’s the biggest problem. When my house flooded this Christmas, it wasn’t just the fact that water came in, it’s that it was contaminated as well. Now every room upstairs and down is condemned and needs to be stripped.

  8. opposablethumbs says

    Ugh, PZ, sympathies and I hope you are lucky enough to get a plumber soon – one who knows their onions, too (or even, in this case, their plumbing).

  9. says

    I’m not sure how to embed video, but I really wanted to post this on the “PZ walks to feed fish” thread.

    MS3TK: The Scandinavian Sketch.

    (If someone can tell an extremely computer-challenged person how to do this, please help!

    Long time lurker, Sue

  10. myleslawrence says

    Yeah but this too will pass. And apparently part of the inconvenience of living and working in an otherwise beautiful environment. Couldn’t help but thinking as I watched you walking through the cold to the school campus the other day what a terrific job you have in a wonderful campus setting. Oh sure it’s easy for me to look on the bright side, I don’t have a cellar full of black freezing water.

  11. says

    Oh, and I apologize if I seemed heartless about the water. Even here in NM, we had pipes burst last year … almost unheard of, but quite a bit of damage was done. We were lucky.

    Here in NM it is hovering around 24F. The coldest it’s been here has been around 10F. Some of my plants will be killed (still colder winters than we used to have) but we’re fortunate … except for our terrible drought, the worst in the country (followed, I guess, by CA, Oregon, TX and other Western states.)

    A side note, since I seldom post … I dreamed last night that I was visiting PZ, but it wasn’t in winter. Members of his adult family were there and some of my family, too. It was the dream I was having when I woke up to face gum surgery this morning. PZ was struggling to get me to the airport on time, but we both were too slow, and when we left we had 20 minute before the plain left. PZ complained that this wasn’t even his house; he really lived in Denver. And then we had to ride to the airport on horseback; all his saddles were English, and I told him I couldn’t ride them and didn’t know how to post. Someone at the stable had an old western saddle, but no saddle blanket, so I told them I couldn’t do that as it might hurt the horse. Upon which PZ tried to weave a saddle blanket out of straw. I was about to stop him, since this too would hurt the horse, when I was rudely awakened by hubbie.

    Somehow I doubt we would have made to the airport on time.

  12. jefrir says

    stevem, #9

    I saw a video last night (on Facebook, ) of a strange, glacier-like expansion of ice from a lake, over a yard, eventually pushing into the houses there and bursting through someone’s door. This “Polar Vortex” has been having some very profound effects. Ignore Rush and Trump who say this was invented by those hoaxers to prove AGW.

    Except I saw what I’m pretty sure was the same video prior to the current cold snap. The polar vortex is having major effects, but I don’t think that particular video is evidence of it.

  13. raven says

    I saw a video last night (on Facebook, ) of a strange, glacier-like expansion of ice from a lake, over a yard, eventually pushing into the houses there and bursting through someone’s door.

    That probably didn’t have much to do with expansion.

    It’s lake pack ice. When the ice starts breaking up, the wind can collect it and blow it around. Including onto the shore and through peoples houses and property. It seems to be more a problem in Canada.

  14. raven says

    The polar vortex being down here might well be due to global warming.

    The current theory at NOAA is that the polar vortex is weakening. This is due to the arctic warming up, even more than the rest of the planet. And especially the disappearing sea ice of the arctic ocean causing the arctic ocean to warm.

    The polar vortex keeps cold air trapped at the north pole area. If it weakens, that air can move south. Which it just did. It was colder in Minnesota than much of Alaska.

    If this is so, this is going to become more common. It may even become the norm. We will have colder winters and hotter summers. I’m glad I don’t live in the interior but the west coast is having its own severe problems. Drought and wild fires. California is in a record drought and if that continues, agriculture is in huge trouble and the state will have more than the usual wild fires.

  15. Jackie wishes she could hibernate says

    I’m sorry to hear that. Sounds like a costly, bothersome, bunch of trouble. I hope you can get and stay warm and dry today.

  16. Burp Ie says

    Another possibility is a frozen vent line. This is fairly common in very cold weather.

  17. Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human. says

    this was dirty, foul, black water. I’m a bit worried about what that means.

    You were listening to the Doobie Brothers?

  18. says

    The plumber came by and was mystified — he wasn’t able to find the source of the leak, and the water is now slowly draining away.

  19. stevem says

    re robertwatkins @10:

    “theoretical”, here too. Even though I live in New England [polar vortex here, too], I’ve never, myself, experienced frozen pipes <fingers crossed>, so my knowledge is also theoretical. But the ‘common advice’ around here is, “leave your pipes dripping in the winter”; especially if you’re a “snowbird” and leave the house alone for the winter. You are correct a “plug” might still form, but I hope that is very rare, as long as it is dripping first. Time to say “bye-bye” to the Polar Vortex.

  20. Usernames are smart says

    he wasn’t able to find the source of the leak — PZ (#24)

    Ugh – it had to have some cause, right? And if the cause isn’t found and corrected, it will happen again, worse.

    When I lived in much colder climes, we not only opened all our faucets a bit, but opened the cabinets below the sinks; this kept the space under the sinks from getting too cold.

    Oh, and don’t forget to secure your outside faucets!

  21. Artor says

    Good luck PZ. We had -10 weather here in Eugene a few weeks ago, and pipes broke all over town. Plumbers have been booked up everywhere, and I’ve been busy repairing water damage for multiple clients. The streets are lined with dead water heaters.

  22. Ogvorbis: Still failing at being human. says


    Since the water was dirty, it may be a drain pipe that had a frozen plug and backed grey water up through a drain?

  23. Big Boppa says

    If you have to replace broken pipes, consider installing PEX –

    My son in law replaced all the old copper pipes in our cottage in northern Wisconsin several years ago. Before then we had to replace at least one burst pipe every spring. Since the switch, nada.

    To save on cost, I believe you can even go with traditional piping in most of the house and only use PEX along outside walls where there’s a greater danger of freezing.

  24. mjmiller says

    I’m with Ogvorbis here. If there is no leak detected, that water may have come in from the exit door. You might ask your plumber if a snake through the main drain is warranted (it may not even have been caused by the freeze).
    full disclosure: I am not a plumber

  25. Tethys says

    Black foul water does sound like the drain line froze and backed up through the drain. If the water was coming from under the sink but the pipes and drains are intact, do you have a garbage disposal and dishwasher drain line that might be broken?

    I had a similar experience this week, but at least it was clean water soaking my ceiling and basement wall and insulation. Between the cost of 2 hours of time for the plumber (non-emergency) and the cost of a new dishwasher, I am out over $1000.00. I don’t even want to think about all the water damage in the basement.

  26. jefferylanam says

    Do you have a backflow valve on the sewer line? It would probably be outside if you did. If that froze in the open position, the sewer line could have backed up into your kitchen. When the sewer thawed out enough to let everything go through, it would look like nothing was wrong.

  27. ButchKitties says

    @28 By the time it occurred to us that we needed to secure our outside faucet before the polar vortex, it was too late to go to the hardware store. So I may have secured it with a foam beer koozie. (And then wrapped that in two towels, a plastic grocery bag, and duct tape. I got a little worked up about it.)

    I think in addition to all the preventative measures mentioned, it’s worth having a couple of leak detectors in the house. They have saved me a few times by catching leaks in their early stages. I like the Leak Frogs. They work well, and they’re kind of adorable. They’re pricey on Amazon, but it seems like Woot sells them at least once a month.

  28. rogerfirth says

    dirty, foul, black water

    Sounds like the nastiness you find in a hot water baseboard heating system that hasn’t been drained/refilled in a long time.

    Do you have a wood stove?

    In really cold weather, a leaky window can dribble cold air down onto the baseboard and freeze it — especially if you’re also heating with wood and your baseboards sit dead cold most of the time.

  29. says

    leaving a faucet drip can also lead to problems.after showering up at out cabin i failed to turn off the tap all the way and a slow drip of water built up in layers inside the pipes to the drain field.the result was that the pipe froze just beyond the wall of the cabin.
    we had not been out to for a few weeks,it took that long for the slow drip to freeze and block the pipe.
    this was some years ago when minnesota had a early sub zero freeze and not much snow to insulate the pipes.even when it’s very cold the water just rushes down the pipes with no time to freeze in place.
    i ended up building a fire over where i thought the block was using a snake down the line to get the down to the pipe which was sections of tile and using hot water removed it and opened the line. sounds like pz had the same problem that resolved it’s self as the pipe warmed up just a bit..don’t get me started on the silver maple in the yard of our house in the city and the sewer line back up every few years!!!

  30. says

    Unless a sewage pipe got backed up, I can’t imagine how the water became black. And a sewage pipe sounds unlikely, since they’re interior and they lead down to a warm sewer, and they don’t go sideways like water pipes.

    If the plumber can’t find a busted pipe, it may not have been a pipe but some source of water from outside. Possibly the roof has a leak and water gathered up in the attic, or froze inside the walls, and then came gushing out when it reached critical mass. That could explain the discoloration. But I’m just spit-balling here.

  31. rogerfirth says

    I missed this first time around:

    strange gurgling sound

    Yep. My money is on a frozen baseboard and an empty hot water baseboard heating system (at least drained down to the level of the break). And I’ll bet you’ve got a wood stove or pellet stove that keeps your baseboard heating system from kicking in.

    Set your thermostat to 90 and see what happens. I’ll bet you get a lot of gurgling and more foul black water in your kitchen. Since the foul black water is on the kitchen floor, the break is above floor level and probably in a finned portion of a baseboard. Find the leak, tear away about 6 inches of the fins, cut out the damaged section and sweat solder in a new piece using a couple of couplings. If you can’t flex the pipes enough to get the second coupling in place, use a union instead. Then refill the system and bleed the radiators.

    About $10 in parts and 30 minutes of time. Or a $300 plumber visit.

  32. says

    I should add that it’s very easy to test whether it was a sewage pipe, a water pipe, or something else. Just go around the house and open up every tap and flush every toilet. If you get water in the kitchen, there’s your problem. If not, it’s coming from somewhere else.

    I’m hoping the plumber did this experiment, but you never know. Incidentally, I don’t hire plumbers because they change exorbitant fees for work that you can do yourself for next to nothing, but I assume that they’re competent enough to find a leak if there is one.

  33. paulburnett says

    “Black water” is plumbing-speak for raw sewage – but raw sewage is almost never black in color. If the observed water’s color is black, it’s not sewage, but water that’s been inside an iron piping system for a long time – the black color is an iron oxide – fire sprinkler systems are infamous for this. Sounds like the heating system. Good luck.

  34. ChasCPeterson says

    Sounds to me like a bent Gibson frammish. That black color comes from hyperoxidized manganese in the intake coupling lubricant. Find the access panel to your master schwenge-valve and use your left-handed banana-nose pliers to temporarily take the pressure off the motherpipe. Then braze in a replacement frammish with a tungsten-based lubricant instead. De-tune the cooling fins, re-actuate the schwenge-valve (remember: right-handed pliers this time), empty the overflow catchment, tweak the glycol levels, and bleed all of your camembert relays. If it still gurgles, top off the regulator reservoir.
    Or call a plumber. Good luck!

  35. chigau (違う) says

    I find myself agreeing with Chas. (hey, it happens)
    Except for the obvious mistake about left-handed banana-nose pliers.

  36. psanity says

    I vote for hot water heating system, too. If you haven’t got one, well, if I woke up to a kitchen full of horrible black water, I’d suspect a leak under the dishwasher. The water is horrible and black, not because of the dishwasher, but because have you ever looked under your dishwasher? Of course not. Trust me, any water that flows from under there will be very icky. Guess how I know.

    If it smells like sewage, it’s drains, but I think you would have said.

  37. mjmiller says

    I know this is a late entry, but I’m changing my diagnosis to what Chas wrote (and cleaning Earl Gray off of my monitors).

  38. Rich Woods says

    @Big Boppa #32:

    If you have to replace broken pipes, consider installing PEX

    But first make sure that an electrician hadn’t previously decided to turn your original copper pipe into the house earth. That’s not a mistake I ever want to experience again.