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Silent Hurricane

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By Brian Mishler

As I type, I’m looking out my window at what is now a balmy 20 degrees, with about eight inches of snow in the yard, ice partially covering the street. The last weather report I paid any attention to said we’ve had over 47 inches of snow to date. Those reports now all seem to blend together into “blah, blah, blah, more snow,” and no one appears to care anymore. Atlanta and a large swath of the south are experiencing their second round of paralyzing ice and snow, 187,000 folks down there are without power, and 25 inches are predicted here tomorrow. Even snow lovers are sick of the extreme cold; one ski resort in New York is reporting record snow – and diminished lift ticket sales at the same time.

Hopefully, you were prepared in the fall, and had a safe, cozy and trouble-free place to escape this bitter winter. I’m equally hopeful as you read this, we are emerging from our winter cocoons, the sun has returned, and the accumulated snow is melting. If not, you’ll find me hunting a particular groundhog.

As we huddled inside, and spent only enough time outside to run from car to buildings and back again, we become in-cognizant as to how bitterly cold it is –and its ramifications. We’ve been bombarded most of this winter by wind chills that can freeze skin in ten minutes, but have we given any thought to the house? It can’t come in from the cold.

An online article described loud booming noises shaking houses and startling people in Vermont. A geologist told the reporter that the phenomena are called “cryoseisms,” or an ice or frost quake. The cause is under-ground rock formations getting so cold that the water inside freezes and breaks the rock, causing the boom and shaking. That’s cold!

Pennsylvania buildings and their infrastructures are not designed for the type of cold we’ve experienced this winter. This is why your furnace was running so much and why your gas (heating) bill is higher than normal. We design and build our houses for average temperatures, not the extremes. If they were built for the extremes, we would waste energy and money during typical winters.

As we emerge from our cold induced stupor, it will be important to pay attention to our houses. We need to look the exterior over top to bottom, and even as the snow melts, problems can arise where still frozen ice ob-structs drainage systems (gutters, driveway drains, etc.) and may cause leaks or pools where none existed. As soon as possible, we need to check the gutters and downspouts; did the ice twist, separate, or damage them? Did the snow squash our bushes against the exterior walls? Did the cold crack the bricks or mortar, or cause the vinyl siding to pop apart? What about the air conditioner – did a chunk of ice fall on it, or did the cold cause a leak in a refrigerant fitting? The caulking around the windows and doors may have cracked or peeled. Soffit, fascia and other trim details may have loosened. Ice and snow may have bent or damaged aluminum awnings or roofs, and can also damage other types of roofs as well.

Inside, the aforementioned drainage issues can cause temporary basement water penetration; however once water finds a way in, it sometimes doesn’t stop. Check the interior walls for cracks; rarely, snow weight can cause structural damage. More commonly it causes shifting which in turn cracks drywall or plaster. Ceiling leaks near an exterior wall often indicate “ice damming” wherein water running down the roof is dammed by ice at the eave and pushed back up under the shingles.

While it may seem like a daunting list, every spring our heating and cooling system should be serviced, and a slow walk around the house will reveal other issues. Most of this list hasn’t happened; it is just a list of what might have. Essentially, if it doesn’t look right, it’s probably not.

Here’s to a happy, warm spring!


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