We keep hearing it: Houston is not built for cold weather like this. Um, clearly. As if frigid temps, rolling blackouts, and a water crisis weren’t enough, we've now seen pipes burst across the city, flooding homes, and destroying their contents in an all too familiar fashion—just this time the water is coming from above.
Houstonia wanted to understand exactly how our homes are built compared to those that can withstand such temps. (Because maybe understanding the how will make the madness of this week feel slightly more sensible, right?)
We turned to Mike Dishberger, CEO and co-owner of Sandcastle Homes and former president of the Greater Houston Builders Association, for answers. Dishberger explains how basements, history, and, yes, even Texans’ beloved garages played a role in the “unprecedented” disaster.
So, how are Houston homes suited for extremely cold weather?
Most all the homes in Houston that are newly built, in 15 to 20 degrees weather—they will definitely hold on. When you get down to 10 degrees, 5 degrees, now you're in uncharted areas. In some areas north of here, in Conroe and such, it got a lot colder. And losing your power does not help. Power helps immensely because it keeps your house warm. And some of that heat is going into your walls, which keeps [pipes] warmer. That's is kind of [how] our homes are built here. We are not set to be at zero degree temperatures or 10 degrees for a long period of time.
How are Houston homes built differently from homes built for this type of weather up North?
One of the big things is basements. My wife's from Iowa, and everyone out there has a basement. All the pipes are in the basement. A lot of times they’re either heated or semi-heated. The pipe goes in underground, goes into the basement, and circulates throughout the house. So it's pretty hard to freeze the pipe. They try to avoid the exterior walls a bit, but that still happens.
In Texas most people have attached garages. [Water] goes in through the attached garage, which is normally in the front of the home. It's normally the closest part of the home to the street where the water meter is. Also, it enters there because you need a water shutoff, and most people don't like seeing a water shutoff valve in their master bedroom or family room or kitchen. So the garage is a good place to put it. But a garage, of course, is uninsulated.
What parts of the home are most prone to pipe breaks or bursts?
You're going to find most of these breaks are in three locations: First is where the water's coming into the house from the outside, so when the pipe rises out of the ground. Freezing water likes to break at weak points. So you'll see cracks at 90-degrees turns, and it can also do it at the valve. Valves are made to turn and twist, which means they're not as strong as the rigid pipe.
The second one is hose bibs, and that's where I see most of the breaks. It's where the water goes out of your house. You'd normally plug your hoses into it. A lot of people will wrap insulation around it, but the problem is that those are vertical lines and (if you’re not dripping water) the water isn't moving at all. Even if they're inside of insulation—because your house is insulated or it's wrapped with the insulation—the water is not moving and water that is not moving has a greater chance of freezing. I went around town and saw a lot of people wrapping those hose bibs with extra insulation, which is great because that is a weak point. But the problem is that the line behind there, it's in the wall.
The third place is the garage. Because we have attached garages a lot of times (in single stories for sure), you have your water coming into your home and across your garage to get into the warm parts of your house. And the garages are not insulated. Now up North, people put in insulated garage doors because when it's below zero, having a garage door helps get your car started. In Texas they don’t do that.
What other trends have you noticed?
The homes that seem to have pipes breaking are the old homes. A lot of old homes—and again they don't do this up North as much—are built above ground, like in The Heights, Acres Homes, Garden Oaks. In these old neighborhoods, the homes are built on blocks. The piping goes in and it's usually underneath the house. It's a little bit warmer underneath the house than it is directly outside, but still it's going to be colder.
What about keeping heat in the home? How do Texas homes compare on that front?
There's an international residential building code that has an energy component, which most builders in the United States are following. They break it into climate. Down here they're really, really big on solar heat gain coefficient, or how much sun gets into your house, because that heats up your home. Up North they don't care about that number. They care about the insulation factor keeping the cold out. It's all focused more on keeping your house cool [here], not keeping it warm. These things just don't happen very often. But when they happen, then we get all these problems going on, as we can see with water pressure, and then enter the power plants and everything else. Nobody's prepared for that. And again, of course, the big question is, how low do you prepare for? Do you prepare for something that happened 31 years ago? Or … what do you do?
After Hurricane Harvey we saw changes to building code in Houston. Do you think we’ll see changes like that in Houston because of this extreme weather too? Or will this be more like a blip on the radar?
MD: I think it'd be a blip, because you're trying to prepare for something that happens every 30 years. I think the flooding was different, and I was largely involved in that. The flooding had occurred over and over again. We kept having 100- and 500- year floods all the time. We had to do that. The inspectors who are inspecting, the plumbers especially, will be looking at the insulation and making sure it is in properly on these houses. There might be something minor. I might make some small changes. I might put some insulation in the unheated garages where the pipe is or a hose bib to give me some comfort. The last thing builders want is anything to go wrong with their homes. So you might see some builders on their own doing something. But I think if it happens next winter again or it happens in three more weeks just like the hurricanes, then yeah, you might see additional changes.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.