Yates on Heating

A conversation between myself and David Yates, Plumbing Contractor

On Saturday, February 17th, feeling almost overwhelmed by the number of barn fire reports coming in, I tallied up the barn fire reports I received since January 1st where portable heaters, heat lamps and/or heat tapes were either the actual or possible cause.  Sadly, the results were:

Total fires reported:53
Number of animals who died in these fires:25,724
Heat-producing equipment as cause of fire:23
Under investigation at time of report:22

Although most of the heater-caused fires were in equipment used to provide heat for newborns, there were several instances where the equipment was used to keep pipes from freezing.  So, when it comes to pipes, I turn to Dave Yates, owner of F.W. Behler contracting company in York, Pennsylvania, because he’s the expert.

I emailed to him:

Some of the barn fire reports I’ve gotten state the cause of fires as either a space heater, heat tape, or lamps used to keep water or well pipes from freezing.  Is there any fire-safe method of insulating or otherwise protecting water pipes that don’t involve a chance of burning the place down?

In my old barn (sacrificed to a ritzy housing development in 1989) we had a water line coming from the house to the barn with a shutoff valve where the pipe came up into the barn from under-ground.  Water pipes went to each stall and each stall had its own shutoff valve.  In winter we would leave the stall valves open until we wanted to water the horses, then we would go from stall to stall and close each valve before opening the main valve.  After filling water buckets we shut off the main valve and opened the stall valves so the remaining water in the pipes could drain out. We did have a heat tape on the water pipe that fed to each of the stalls but it was seldom on because the horses kept the barn temperature at a pretty steady 42 degrees even on the coldest days.   I don’t recall ever having a problem with a winter water supply, but I haven’t seen any other barns that had a similar setup.

Any ideas we can pass on to barn owners?


Dave’s very quick, most welcome reply

We had so little sub-freezing weather these past few years, that most folks were lulled into a frozen-pipe stupor! For we folks in the Susquehanna Valley area, the PA Farm Show week is typically the time-frame for winter’s worst weather. This year, it was more spring-like than I can recall it ever being in my past memory. Hah! Mother Nature obviously had other plans. The past two weeks have been a real test of patience and perseverance!

Two things come into play where frozen water lines and thawing them come to mind: fires; and CO (Carbon Monoxide poisoning). As before, the cheap heat tapes aren’t really a bargain if using them causes a fire. Your readers need to carefully read the fine print that details proper installation/use. This is especially true when overlapping a heat tape over itself or adding any type of pipe wrap or insulation that will encapsulate the heat tape. Rodents seem to favor chewing on the plastic jacketed tapes, which can expose wiring and create both a fire and shock hazard. As rascally as some horses seem to be (no doubt the root of the term “horse play”), I wouldn’t doubt they enjoy tugging at and gnawing on a heat tape!

Electric, gas and kerosene heaters present their own fire-hazard issues as do fan motors. Given the tinder-like conditions found in most barns where hay is present, extreme caution is in order. The fan-assisted heaters need to be kept free of dust and fibers that can combust and the same is true for any hot surfaces. Anything with an open flame would be a concern if it were my barn.

As you noted, the animals handle cold better than we do. Creature comforts are specific to the creatures affected! Water is a vital necessity for sustaining life. There was (is?) a company that made heart-cups for keeping water from freezing and I remember piping a chicken house as well as an outdoor cattle trough. One bitter cold night’s 3 AM call to a milking house where the lack of water due to a frozen line was creating panic for the farmer. Dairy cattle evidently need lots of water!

So, how to deal with freezing weather while keeping the pipes-a-flowing?  Top quality heat tapes can be utilized, but are fairly expensive. I’d find a way to let Mother Earth help – via gravity as you mentioned.  There is always an entry point (or several entry points) and it’s there that I’d begin planning for next winter’s weather – now – while the issue is most pressing. Let’s tackle it one step at a time:

  1. Is the line serving the barn below frost levels? In SE PA, that would be at least 36″ below grade and a bit more if it runs along the north side of the barn or in a shaded area where 60″ isn’t out of the ordinary. If not, I’d recommend getting the line replaced with one at proper depth for the geographic area.
  2. A pit, or vault, should be added where this line will rise to, or above, grade. A suitable shut-off with drain-down valve can be added here and no freeze protection will be required up to this point. Ahead of this main barn shut-off, I’d recommend they add a T-branch (with its own shut off) to feed a “bury hydrant”. They’re called bury hydrants because there’s a portion that’s buried below grade so that the entire riser can drain back by gravity to its base. A bury hydrant rises above grade to a lift-handle with a spout that normally incorporates a bump for holding a bucket handle in place while filling. When you lift the handle, the plunger lifts off of the seat at the very bottom of the hydrant (3′ below grade round these parts) and water is given a by-pass route around the plunger, which has effectively sealed off the drain-hole. When finished drawing water, the handle is depressed causing the plunger to seat – shutting off the water flow – and the drain-down hole becomes exposed. Providing there is nothing to stop gravity drainage – like an attached hose – the entire riser (3′ below grade and 2′ above grade) will drain into the bed of gravel surrounding the bury hydrant’s base.
  3. For larger operations where manually lifting the lid to activate/deactivate water is too much of a pain, the riser can be brought up into a well insulated enclosure where a short good-quality heat tape can be utilized to keep it from freezing. Here again, a shut-off valve and drain valve can be utilized to activate a system like you’ve described where an “open” piping system will permit you to flow water to each point of use. As long as the user pipes the system so that no low-points, or bellies, will be created, the piping can “tilt” either towards or away from the source. The main thing to remember is allowing air to enter the system once it’s turned off. Air can be introduced from the main drain-down point and all points of use. Forget to open that drain-down valve and you’ll have the potential for problems. Here again, that added bury hydrant can be a real life-saver and serve as an emergency back-up for bucket-carried water. Sure beats calling me out at $100 bucks an hour in the middle of the night!
  4. If a portable heater must be utilized – stay there to monitor its use. Keep the area surrounding any portable heater as clean as possible and use heavy-duty extension cords that are in pristine condition – with their ground-plug in tact. Never place anything that can become a hazard when knocked over near any livestock!
  5. Anything that burns a fossil fuel gives off CO. CO is a silent killer and sneaks up on you and your livestock. Warning signs typically include a flu-like feeling. The half-life of CO is 5-hours, so it is entirely possible to become more ill even if you’ve left the area affected. CO is readily accepted by red blood cells and more favored than oxygen. It combines with red blood cells to create carboxyhemogloben (pronounced: car boxy hemo globe en). While barns tend to be drafty and introduce lots of fresh air, Tack Rooms are often much more air-tight and could pose a problem if you’re using an unvented fossil fuel heater.

Stay warm & safe,
Dave Yates

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