Hard Tellin’: How frozen pipes helped build my character while destroying my basement


David Praamsma

In Vermont it’s advisable to hold your tongue about cold winters until you’ve weathered at least a few good pipe freezings. 

I’m not talking about a little plumbing trouble with some condo property in Killington. I’m talking pipes exploding, geysers in the basement, old-farmhouse-kind-of-trouble. The kind of frozen-pipes stories that get enshrined in family lore, passed on from fathers to sons. Frozen-pipe stories that can really hush a roomful of people.  

I’ll confess that this is a bullet I have dodged since moving here years ago. Frozen pipes, I’ve been reasoning privately in my mind, were not to be the fate of those of us safely living in 21st-century housing. It was those ancestral New England homesteads that you really had to worry about. Those curious constructions made by great-grandfathers with questionable plumbing skills. 150-year-old deals with field stones for foundations, old newspapers for insulation, and hay bales prayerfully piled up against the foundation.

This is not to say I wouldn’t listen to these stories without compassion. I was Mr. Empathy there in the grocery store aisles during the coldest days of mid-winter. Nodding. Listening. Sympathetically squeezing shoulders. One such neighbor I encountered in Aubuchon one day shopping for pipe insulation. He had a flashlight in his hand, a few cobwebs in his ball cap, a humorless expression stamped on his face. It did not take high-level Sherlock skills to deduce that this was an unhappy man who had just been crawling in the bowels of his house with a hair dryer. Without hesitation I made a few good righteous pronouncements about the evils of arctic winter weather. Offered my best condolences. And then slipped home to the room temperature of my snug little bungalow. 

As the cold continued last February, I found myself visiting an old friend who also happened to be an innkeeper. We were chatting lightheartedly until one of us brought up the matter of the extended deep freeze. Any jocularity in our conversation was immediately suspended. (On the subject of deep freezes in Vermont there is little room for humor.) For the record, my friend’s old New England guest house is positively labyrinthine. I was hesitant to wonder just what type ancient pipework was feeding his heaters and faucets. 

 “And how are your pipes doing?” I asked as casually as I could. He immediately took me on a no-nonsense inspection tour of his inn. Here was a man clearly in combat readiness. Around his more-exposed vulnerable pipework he had strung up some fancy heating wiring. Hatchways were strategically positioned along walls and flooring for immediate access and trouble shooting. Space heaters were positioned preemptively like sentries. Of course, it is hard to see this kind of preparedness and not get the feeling that others know things that you do not.  I warmly congratulated him on his winter readiness and then rushed home with my shrinking confidence.

Within the hour I found myself reaching for the dial on the wall of my own home. (Best to keep your own pipes active, he had advised, even if you use a wood stove.) Not long after turning the dial did my wife and I hear an unearthly growl come from the basement. We immediately dismissed the sound as nothing more than our furnace reactivating after a couple months of dormancy. A visit later to the basement proved otherwise. 

Water was shimmering down the wall like a severely misplaced waterfall. Household objects were floating past my ankles. The walls were bulging with grotesque tear ducts ready to explode. It was like standing in the troubled hold of a sinking vessel, ruthlessly torpedoed by winter’s worst.   

Eventually, it was my calm-headed wife who located the right valve to shut off and we were able to assess the damage. The drywall I had lovingly put up in my basement was turning to porridge. (Drywall, I don’t need to tell you, is brutally victimized in this business.) Whole swaths of it had to be cut away. For some reason I was seeing images of that Antarctic explorer who famously conducted self-surgery on his ruptured appendix.

I stood humbled. I was finally paying for my proudful assumptions of immunity. I had underestimated the Vermont Winters and I was going to have to pay exorbitant weekend plumbing rates as penance. (Not to mention a carpet or two in the basement.) 

I’m happy to report that eventually we stopped taking on water. I told my wife, if there is any consolation, it’s that we’ve now finally earned our chops as winter-hardened Vermonters. We could courageously now stand among the highest echelons of Vermonters who braved the worst of it and come out the other side. 

She told me to go get a few more cans of spray foam insulation and be quiet. 

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