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Science Behind Extreme Cold

If you are like many New Englanders, and many people in other parts of the country, you could be just coming out of a cold spell. Today I want to talk about some of the science behind phenomena that you may be seeing because of the extreme cold:

1. Pipes Freezing and/or Bursting. You may have had the unfortunate experience of turning on your faucet in the kitchen, or shower, or laundry room one morning, and getting no water coming out in return. You know what that means, right? There is a pipe in your house (potentially more than one) that has frozen in this weather and created a blockage that prevents water from coming out the faucet. If you are particularly unlucky, the frozen pipes can burst, creating a big flood and a huge mess. This has happened to our family, although not this year (yet) (knock on wood). Did you ever wonder why cold temperatures make pipes freeze and then burst?

Well, the freezing pipe part is more obvious. Cold temperatures outside the house cause cold temperatures inside the house, especially in your basement (if you keep that temperature lower than the rest of the house), in the corners of the house, or in any other areas that are particularly drafty or hard to heat in general. When it is extremely cold outside, the outside temperature has enough of an effect to freeze indoor pipes in those regions.

Why do the frozen pipes burst? Because ice is less dense than water, which means that it takes up more space compared to the same amount of water. This is because the molecules in the ice move very little, and like to keep lots of empty space around them. Molecules in liquid water are packed closer together, which results in them taking up more space and being more dense. When water that fits in the interior of the pipe fine turns into ice, that ice can’t fit into the pipe, so it freezes, expands, and can burst. It is the same reason that explains why soda cans left in your car burst in this weather also, or a water bottle in your freezer that you filled all the way to the top, or any other water-based liquid turning into ice.

What can you do to limit the likelihood of the pipes freezing and/or bursting? Leave your house temperature warm, even in the basement. Try 65-70 degrees in these extremely cold temperatures. It will cost you money, but less money than a burst pipe plumbing emergency would be. Another option is to leave the faucets dripping slightly, especially in these temperatures. Moving water, even slow moving water, will be less likely to freeze.

2. Cars Not Starting. So you leave the house on your way to work, try to turn the car on, and instead of hearing the normal car engine noises, you hear the car sputtering, struggling, making some noise….but not turning on. What is going on? Why does this happen? This is because the battery in your car, a necessary component for starting the engine, can’t work in such cold temperatures. The batteries in the cars, when you think about it, have to be built to survive a pretty large range of temperatures – from very cold all the way to very hot – without sacrificing performance. These temperatures that we’ve been experiencing in New England? Well, they are right at or below the lower temperature limit for a lot of batteries in a lot of cars. Do yourself a favor and invest in a portable battery pack to jump start your car. Leave it in the glove compartment. You never know when you might need it.

Stay warm, readers! It can’t stay cold forever!

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