Inverters 101: What is an Inverter and How do They Help?

In the old days, there were two ways to cut an appliance’s utility cost. The first is to use the appliance sparingly, and the second is to purposely choose an undersized unit that sacrifices performance for savings. Neither option is desirable and comfortable for you and your family.

Thankfully, there is now a third option: choose an inverter appliance in lieu of the normal one.

The 6 Signs of a Frozen Pipe, and How to Fix Them

Every cold season sees the danger of frozen water pipes. While we take hot water and indoor plumbing for granted, all it takes is one burst pipe to disrupt the household and lead to additional repairs from water damage.

The average cost of a burst pipe repairs ranges from $100-$200 per foot, but most households end up forking between $400 to $1,500, depending on the length of the affected waterlines. And this doesn’t yet include the clean up and repair bill for the water damage, which can pile on an additional grand or two.

To avoid this nightmare, it helps to know how to spot a frozen pipe. Here are five danger signs to watch out for, and what to do in case it happens.

Warning Sign #1: -20 Degrees

The freezing point of water is 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Thankfully, indoor pipes are insulated from outside temperatures, so they can function below freezing weather.

It’s when the external temperature falls below -20 degrees F that pipes are in danger of freezing. So keep an eye out for the local temp each day.

 

Warning Sign #2: 6 Hours Below Freezing

If outside temperatures fall below -20 degrees F for six consecutive hours or more, there’s a good chance that your pipes may have frozen. 

Hence, be careful of overnight freezing temperatures. Most cases of burst pipe damage happen in the morning, when homeowners first wake up and turn on the tap without checking.

 

Warning Sign #3: Frost Formation

This one should be obvious, and yet a lot of people miss it. The clearest sign of a frozen waterline is when frost forms on the pipe exterior. So before reaching for the faucet, take a quick look below the sink, and tap the metal for signs of ice formation.

 

Warning Sign #4: No Running Water

If only a trickle comes out of the faucet, or no water at all, that’s a giant red flag. Immediately close the tap before water pressure builds up and bursts through the affected area.

 

Warning Sign #5: Odd Smells

If you notice a strange odor emanating from a tap or sink, it might be a sign of a frozen or blocked pipe. This is because a blocked pipe obstructs the odor from circulating inside the line, so it has nowhere to go but back out the faucet.

The odor can vary depending on your geographic location, water quality, and the condition of your water line. But common bad odors include:

  • Metallic smell
  • Sulfurous stink
  • Earthy smell, like just after it rains
  • Sewage odor

 

Warning Sign #6: Water Hammer

If you hear a loud series of bangs when opening the tap, chances are you’re hearing the sound of a water hammer. This is when the high water pressure gets blocked, so it slams into and builds up inside the pipe. As a result, the pipes themselves may jerk around and clatter against other pipelines or within the wall framing. 

A water hammer is a catastrophic sign and the water supply should be turned off immediately, before the pipes burst from the pressure.

 

What to Do in Case of a Frozen Pipe Situation

Turn off the tap

Immediately close the faucet and warn all family members. If possible, shut off the water supply to the suspect area to stop the flow of moving water.

 

Inspect the pipeline

Check the pipes in the affected sink for these signs:

  • Frost formation
  • Dripping water
  • Pooled water under the pipe
  • Misalignments

If the pipes have been knocked out of alignment or ruptured, keep the water supply closed and call a plumber. Otherwise, you can thaw the pipe.

 

Keep the door open

For under sink pipes, keep the cabinet door open. This will allow the warm air circulating in the house to get through to the pipe and mitigate freezing.

If it’s in the bathroom, keep the door open so the warm air will rush in and fill the space.

 

Open the faucet

Once you’ve determined there are no ruptures, open the tap. The thawing process will generate water and steam, and these will need to be discharged out of the open faucet.

 

Apply heat

There are several ways you can thaw a frozen section of piping:

  • If there’s a nearby outlet, you can use an electric heating pad. Just make sure the outlet has a ground-fault circuit interrupter (GCFI) for safety.
  • If the pipe is accessible, use a hair dryer.
  • If you lack either of these, you can also use towels soaked in hot water and wrapped around the pipe.
  • If you wish to use a space heater, make sure the space is clear of flammable materials, and never leave it unattended while turned on.

NEVER use these items to try and thaw the pipe:

X Kerosene or propane heaters

X Open flame devices such as charcoal stoves

X Blowtorches

 

When in doubt, call a professional

Thanks to metal conductivity, a frozen pipe is rarely a single occurrence. If you spot one, chances are there could be others. 

If you can’t check the rest of the pipes, or if they lie in an exterior wall, call the plumber rather than risk greater damage.

 

To stop pipes from freezing in the first place, check out our guide to Burst Pipe Prevention.

 

Pipe Down Prevention: How to Avoid Burst Pipes in Winter

Each year, roughly a quarter of a million households in the US experience frozen or burst pipes. In fact, such damages account for 11-20% of homeowner’s insurance claims annually.

And it’s no trivial amount either: burst pipe repair costs around $100-$200 per foot, with most families shelling an average of $400 to $1,500. This amount doesn’t include the clean up and repair costs of water damages, which can add a further $1,000 to $2,000 on top of the bill.

To avoid this headache, it’s crucial to make sure your water pipes are prepared for the cold season. Here’s how to winterize your pipes for reliable and hassle-free plumbing.

Know the Danger Temp

Water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit. However, pipes that are indoors and insulated from exterior temperatures are more protected.

The typical danger threshold is when outside temperatures reach at least 20 degrees F. At this stage, even indoor pipes are vulnerable to freezing.

 

Know How Long It Takes

In general, outside temperatures below 20 degrees F that last for 6 consecutive hours present a danger to indoor plumbing. This is why most burst pipe cases happen overnight: not only are temperatures lower at night, the freezing temperatures are uninterrupted and go unnoticed by most people, until they turn on the tap.

 

Keep It Flowing

In cases of prolonged freezing temperatures, keep one or two faucets open and running. Water movement stops the water supply from remaining pooled and freezing in the pipes. It doesn’t have to be a powerful flow: even a modest trickle can help. This is especially true during freezing nights. 

 

Check your Air Seals

Air leaks are a major source of heat loss in winter. Not only do they cause discomfort and higher utility bills, they can damage your pipes by lowering the indoor temperature despite the thermostat setting.

For your water line, check for air leaks around the pipeline, dryer vents, and outside connections such as an outdoor tap. Thanks to metal conductivity, a tiny air leak in one area can travel a great deal of distance and travel down, affecting a considerable length of pipeline.

 

Add Insulation

Use foam insulation to cover exposed pipes. These come in different types:

Flexible elastomeric foams – these have high water vapor resistance with the flexibility of rubber

Rigid foam – Made from PUR or PIR, these have reduced thickness but lowered acoustic performance

Polyethylene – A cheaper option made of flexible foamed plastic

 

Open Cabinet Doors

For pipes that are under sinks or next to outdoor walls, keep the cabinet doors open. This will allow the heat from inside the home to circulate inside the cabinet, lowering the risk of freezing.

This also helps you spot danger signs like water pooling and icing before you turn on the tap.

 

Use Heat Tape

Heat tapes are insulation covers specifically designed for use with plumbing. Despite the name, it’s less of an adhesive tape and more of an electric blanket that wraps around water lines. They are self-regulating and come with a built-in thermostat to adjust their heat output based on the ambient temperature.

Older heat tapes needed to be hardwired into the home’s electrical system. However, newer versions are plug-and-play with standard outlets; just make sure to connect them to an outlet with a ground fault circuit interrupter (GCFI) for safety. 

 

Know When to Bring the Heat

If you don’t have heat tape, or if some suspect some parts are more vulnerable than others, warm it up. These include: 

  • Pipes that run next to an outside wall
  • Pipes near a window
  • Pipes connecting to an exterior faucet
  • Basement

Use a space heater to keep the area warm. For enclosed spaces, make sure to use an electric heater instead of gas or propane, and keep the heater well away from water sources. 

 

For more information about winterizing your home and not just your waterline, read our guide to preparing your home for winter.

 

8 Practical Tips to Lower your Heating Bill this Winter

It’s an unfortunate fact every season: as temperatures go down, heating costs go up. The average American household spends up to $1,500 on heating, most of it during the fall and winter months. It also accounts for the vast majority of a family’s energy usage.

This year, the National Energy Assistance Directors Association estimates that gas bills could rise up to 30% over the coming winter, as natural gas shoots up to their highest prices since 2014. This can be challenging for households affected by the Covid pandemic and the sluggish economy.

To help you out, here are 5 practical tips to help lower your heating costs.

Tip 1: Clean those filters

The air filter is a critical component of your heating system. It filters dust, dirt and impurities from reaching the heating element, allowing the furnace to work more efficiently.

Cleaning or replacing dirty filters on your furnace can make a dramatic difference. According to the Department of Energy, a clean filter can chop 5 to 15% off your heating bill.

 

Tip 2: Adjust that thermostat

Since the advent of centralized heating in the 60s, average home temperatures in the US have risen to 70 degrees Fahrenheit during the day, and 68 degrees F at night. 

However, most families can still be comfortable at lower temperatures. A good setting that balances comfort and savings would be 68 degrees during the day. At night, you can lower the thermostat to as low as 60 degrees, since you can make up the balance with thick comforters and plush bedding.

The DOE estimates that households can save as much as 10% annually by lowering the thermostat down by 7-10 degrees for 8 hours a day.

 

Tip 3: Know when to bring on the heat

The EPA estimates that up to a quarter of household heating is wasted while nobody is home. A smart thermostat can cut down on the wastage by kicking only when needed. Program the thermostat to turn on about 30 minutes before you get home, and you can save up to 20% off your monthly bill.

 

Tip 4: Switch the thermostat fan to auto

If you’ve always wondered what “Fan Auto” meant on your thermostat, it means the fans kick only when the heater is being used. Otherwise, leaving the fan to “On” means it’s always operating, which is a waste of energy and leads to higher power bills.

 

Tip 5: Heat only where it’s needed

While most of us take central heating for granted, the truth is much of it can be wasted. If the family tends to congregate around specific rooms, then there’s no need to heat the whole house.

For instance, if everyone tends to stay in the living room, a space heater may be more practical than turning on the whole house furnace. You can also rearrange the room to make the heat convection more efficient, such as bringing the heater closer to everyone and reversing the ceiling fan blades so it spreads heat throughout the room.

 

Tip 6: Use the fireplace wisely

One of the most iconic scenes of winter is a roaring fireplace. However, it’s also by far the least efficient way to heat a home. Unless you have a traditional wood-burning fireplace, using a gas or electric fireplace can end up being more costly than the furnace.

Experts recommend using the fireplace less than 5 times a year. When not being used, make sure the flue is tightly closed to prevent hot air from escaping out into the cold.

 

Tip 7: Optimize your hot water heater

Water heaters are typically set to 170 degrees Fahrenheit at the factory, allowing them to quickly generate hot water while maintaining operational lifespan. However, the human body can tolerate much lower temperatures. Consider setting it to 120 degrees, which is still comfortable enough for a hot shower while being friendlier on your wallet.

Also make sure your pipes stay insulated. Even if they are, most water heaters come with minimal insulation. Adding extra insulation in the form of pre-cut jackets can dramatically reduce standby heat loss by 25% to 45%.

 

Tip 8: Check if your provider has budget billing

Some utility providers offer “budget billing”, where they examine your historical energy usage and come up with an average cost for you to pay each month. This will allow you to budget your monthly expenditure and know when it’s time to cut back on heating use. 

For households heavily dependent on natural gas, the Natural Gas Association recommends taking a look at the Low Income Home Energy Assistance Program. This federal program helps poorer families pay their energy bills, but households that earn up to $40,000 a year may still qualify.

 

For more bill cutting tips, check out our earlier entry on reducing heating costs.

 

5 Common Winter Pests and How to Get Rid of Them

When the holidays roll around, you can expect the seasonal pesky things to come too. Christmas carolers, annoying relatives, and of course… pests.

While we can’t do anything about your dreaded in-laws, we know a thing or two about winter pests. Here are five common critters that come out during the cold season, and how you can root them out from your home.

Cockroaches

The bane of households around the world, cockroaches can be found on every continent except Antarctica. They carry a wide host of diseases, including nasty bacteria like salmonella, staphylococcus, and streptococcus, and intestinal parasites that can cause diarrhea, dysentery, all the way to cholera and typhoid fever.

According to the National Pest Management Association, roaches are also one of the most common sources of indoor allergens, with up to 63% of American homes containing such allergens. Children are much more susceptible to cockroach allergies than adults.

Common roach species that can be found in the US include:

  • American cockroach (Periplaneta americana)
  • German cockroach (Blattella germanica)
  • Oriental cockroach (Blatta orientalis)
  • Brown-banded cockroach (Supella longipalpa)

Solution:

Roaches are a hardy bunch, and total eradication is extremely difficult. The best thing you can do to limit their spread is to reduce their access to food, water and shelter.

Food and water

  • Keep counters, tabletops, and floors clear of any food debris
  • Don’t let garbage sit overnight: dispose of it everyday
  • Vacuum frequently to get rid of tiny food particles and scraps that may not be evident to the naked eye
  • Wipe up spills immediately, don’t let them soak on the floorboards and carpet.
  • Don’t leave pet food out if possible, and clean their bowls
  • Fix leaky taps and pipes

Shelter

  • Seal entry points to your home, such as cracks and gaps. Besides, these also serve as heat loss sources in winter.
  • Use roach traps. Pay attention to dark and damp areas, corners, closets and undersinks.

 

Ants

Another prolific pest the world over, ants are masters of overwintering. When the cold comes, their body temperatures drop to conserve energy. This causes them to seek warm places, such as deep soil, tree interiors, and of course, the cosy inviting warmth of your home.

Like roaches, you can limit their intrusion by denying access to food and shelter.

Solution:

  • Get rid of things that attract ants, including:

Leftover food on countertops and floors

Pet food in bowls

Encrusted food in the sink and kitchen tiles

Open food containers

  • Wipe down ant trails with bleach or ammonia-based cleaners to eliminate the scent.
  • Keep your house clean by vacuuming regularly.

 

Brown Recluse Spiders

These nasty spiders have a necrotic venom that causes severe pain and gangrene, leaving deep, sometimes permanent scars. Most can be found in the Southeast, particularly Arkansas, Colorado, Kansas, Missouri, Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas, but they can reach as far as California.

Brown recluse spiders inhabit dark and undisturbed areas of the house, such as attics, crawl spaces, basements, and rarely opened closets. They can also be found nesting inside shoes, cardboard boxes, and along window moldings.

Solution:

  • Trim overhanging branches from the roof, as well as shrubs and foliage too close to the house walls.
  • Store shoes in sealed boxes or plastic containers. Other items that may need sealed storage include gloves and mitts.
  • Use glue traps in suspect areas.
  • Use brown recluse insecticide upon spotting a spider. For passive defense, you can spread diatomaceous earth powder in vulnerable spots.

 

Rats

As warm-blooded creatures, rats naturally seek the warmth afforded by your house in winter. Common nesting areas include attics, basements, closets, garages, toolsheds, and even piles of debris.

Norway rats are particularly dangerous, since they will gnaw almost anything, even plastic or lead pipes, in addition to furniture and wiring. They can also survive for over a month without water.

Solution:

Home interior 

  • Deny access to your home by plugging gaps, cracks and holes in exterior walls. 
  • Eliminate nesting places using rat traps and rodenticides.
  • Use natural deterrents like cayenne pepper, black pepper, cloves or peppermint oil.
  • Crush pepper also works to ward off rat entryways, as long as they are far away from your HVAC, AC, or humidifier.

House exterior:

  • Place dry ice in burrows to asphyxiate rats humanely.
  • Keep your lawn trimmed and free of clutter to deny hiding areas.
  • Use snap traps, baits and poisons to deny rats from gaining access to the wall perimeter.

 

Raccoons

Another warm-blooded vermin, racoons are a major host of rabies in the US. In winter, they seek refuge in houses as a denning site. Worse, once they find such a warm refuge, they are apt to stay there for the whole season, leading to a group, or “gaze”, of racoons in your home.

Solution:

  • Patch up holes, especially in the attic. Racoons can squeeze through holes the size of a softball.
  • Ensure that garbage lids are tightly sealed to prevent unwanted attraction.
  • Avoid leaving pet food and water outside at night.
  • Apply an equal mix of chili powder and ground garlic around your garden perimeter.
  • Use motion-activated lights to deter their nocturnal forays.