Drought has broken my water line, again
August 20, 2009 9:24 AM   Subscribe

Drought broke my water line. How can I prevent this in the future?

The Texas drought, combined with gumbo clay soils, broke my water line. As the months of heat and little rain have gone on, the dirt around my house has slowly dropped. I believe that the soil next to the foundation may be as much as two inches lower than it was last winter. Of course, this has resulted in stress and strain on the plumbing, and something had to give.

As I dig in the yard and open the wall of my house, I can see that there have been at least two prior repairs for this same issue. My question: Can I install some sort of flexible fitting with the galvanized pipe, where it transitions from the horizontal run through the ground to the vertical line that enters the house? The flexible copper line on the top of my water heater looks like the ideal type of fitting. Is there a better option?
posted by Midnight Skulker to Home & Garden (11 answers total)
Instead of flexible line, you could build a series of threaded elbows and pipes that will be sealed, but still allow for movement at the threaded joints. Here is an example with plastic pipe. I have these on all my sprinkler heads.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 9:37 AM on August 20, 2009

Could you perhaps look into replacing the galvanized pipe with PVC pipe? It would certainly have more flexibility and 'give' in it. But I don't know what the standards are for such things where you are...
posted by le morte de bea arthur at 9:38 AM on August 20, 2009

One of the prior fixes involved PVC pipe. It broke.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 10:37 AM on August 20, 2009

I have heard of people preventing large soil movements by building in an intentional slow drip to keep the ground wet.
posted by Bruce H. at 11:32 AM on August 20, 2009

You might want to look into HDPE pipe for applications like this. It can stretch and deform without rupturing, and should be acceptable to your local code officer. Try to find a local plumber that has experience installing it. It's not difficult, but there are some ins and outs.

If you've high swell clays, you still could have problems with the pipe pulling out of the connection at the house or meter. We don't have them around here, so I don't know too much about how to prevent that. There may be specialty fittings you can install.

You can mitigate the shrink/swell in clays by maintaining the moisture level. In areas with highly expansive clays some slabs are built with an underground sprinkler system to keep the clay moist. Might be able to adapt something like that.

Chances are, you're not the only one in your area to have this problem. Could be worth contacting a plumber or a civil engineer and see if they have any suggestions.
posted by electroboy at 11:35 AM on August 20, 2009

Sorry, link appears to be broken Try this.

Also, HDPE is approved for service connections, but not interior plumbing. PEX is generally used for interior plumbing.
posted by electroboy at 11:55 AM on August 20, 2009

I don't live in an area where this is an issue, but I have an idea. Would it be possible to surround the horizontal run of pipe with several inches of some sort of soft foam for the first few feet, so that the hard earth wouldn't bear directly against the pipe?
posted by jon1270 at 12:25 PM on August 20, 2009

Jon, when I repaired this issue last, about 10 years ago, I enclosed the water line in a 4 inch pipe, for extra wiggle room. I suspect that the drought is more severe, or that the pipe filled up with sediment.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 1:41 PM on August 20, 2009

How is the water line actually fastened to the house? Is there a horizontal run under the ground, that goes to a 90 degree up and is clamped onto the house? I think the flexible hdpe option is best for that. And/or, build a loop or two into the vertical with copper pipe. Like the do with the gas line behind the stove- when the stove is up against the wall, the loop is compact. When you pull the stove out, it is expanded. Like a slinky.

If it goes horizontally into a hole in the foundation and into a basement/crawlspace, and then up into the house, I would probably make the entrance hole about six inches around, and fill that hole with something that can flex- like what they use to connect wires through a hole. A rubber grommet of some kind.

Another option would be to build a "loop" into the underground service line- if it's copper tubing, make a couple of lazy "s" moves with it so it can stretch out. Or if it's rigid, a series of 45 or 90 degree fittings to make a sort of Z as it connects to the house.

My last thought, but I have no idea how it would work, is to make a nice gravel bed/vault for the line. Dig the hole deep, put down some kind of loose, easily "flowable" gravel surrounding the service connection, and then surround the pipe with something like foam rubber pipe insulation to make it easy for it to move around. Lots of fill under and around it, so the water (and silt) will drain when it rains. Maybe filter fabric?
posted by gjc at 4:56 PM on August 20, 2009

Thanks, gjc. I was thinking about the "s" shape in copper tubing, but wondered if there were any better ideas.

The water line is about 20 inches below the ground. It then makes a 90 degree turn, comes up next to the foundation, and then enters the house 18 inches above the ground, at a 90 degree angle.

I will add a "s" shape copper segment just before the underground 90 degree angle. We will see if it is intact 10 years from now. I will embed it in about a square foot of sand.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 6:58 PM on August 20, 2009

OK, just in case anyone visits this question again, here is the outcome of my quest.

I talked to a plumber. I suggested the flexible copper pipe, and he said that it is flexible for installation, but will lot stand for repeated movement. In addition, connecting the copper to the galvanized pipe will cause corrosion.

Another suggestion was 3/4 inch stainless steel mesh, over tubing. The problem here is that the tubing is 3/8 inch internal diameter, and restricts water flow into the house.

I asked about HDPE. Yes, he said, the city uses it to connect to the meter. However, city codes do not allow for HDPE from the meter to the house. No answer to "Why?" Also, I did not confirm this. In addition, I do not want to dig a 25 foot trench from the house to the meter.

The plumber suggested 3/4 copper pipe from the meter to the house, with 6 inches of PVC separation between copper and steel. Again, I did not want to dig that much.

My solution: I bought a $15 water valve box, used for sprinker systems, and ran the vertical pipe down into it. I enclosed the horizontal pipe in a 4 foot length of 4 inch schedule 40 PVC. This arrangement will allow for several inches of movement, and enough wiggle room to prevent future earth movement caused breaks.

I hope.
posted by Midnight Skulker at 2:02 PM on August 24, 2009

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