Order Tara's Bicycle Touring Cookbook Today!

Winter Water Setbacks

by Tara

When I first started writing this post a few days ago, I was going to talk about how wonderfully forgiving and resilient our house is. How even when it gets really cold, our cottage is cozy, snug, and easy to heat. How our straw bale walls and R40 roof have spoiled me forever. How I will never go back to a less-insulated home.

Our Straw Bale Cottage & Outhouse in the Snow

I was also going to write about how thankful I was that our water situation was finally taken care of, and how our Heat Line prevented our pipes from freezing. Miraculous!

Heat Line Power Supply

I was going to write about what a gift it is that we work from home and can admire the flying snow (what little we've had this year) from the comfort of our cozy abode. How magical it is to live here, warmed by fire and lit by candles and lanterns (and regular lights, too). How stunning it is when the moonlight shines through our skylights and illuminates the dark night with a blue glow. Winter at its finest.

Moon Through (Un-Finished) Skylight

And while all of that is still mostly true, there's more to the story now.

After months of mild winter, the temperature suddenly dropped to negative 20 degrees fahrenheit. Even though the cistern shed was in the 60s, and our house was in the 60s, and there's a heated line inside the pipes, the one exposed foot between the house and the shed froze anyway. I guess our Heatline couldn't keep up with the cold. We wrapped the section with a towel, and not a minute later, it thawed and we had running water again. Phew!

Lesson learned: Though the Heatline has kept us with water all winter long, we'll need to insulate the tiny section of exposed pipe for when it gets really cold.

Relieved to be back in business after the brief pipe fiasco, Tyler triumphantly headed to the sink to wash the dishes... and water began spraying everywhere from under our counter where the water heater is! We ended up with a quarter of an inch puddle in the corner of the kitchen.

Kitchen Puddle from Burst Water Heater Pipe

And thus we learned that the piping in our on-demand hot water heater had frozen and burst. Apparently, since our heater vents to the outdoors, cold air can enter the house from the exhaust port and freeze the pipes. Major design flaw.

Eccotemp Tankless Water Heater with Burst Pipes Disassembled Eccotemp Tankless Water Heater Disassembled Eccotemp Tankless Water Heater

Lesson learned: for ultra low temperatures, we need to turn off the hot water and drain the line. Or, perhaps we need to create some sort of barrier we can lower to block cold air from rushing in when we're not using the hot water.

Sometimes I marvel at how we managed to survive dwelling in a camper, building this place, and living in a complete and total disaster of a construction zone for as long as we did, while also working full-time and spending our pathetically small amounts of free time attempting (and failing) to truly capture our goings-on on this website. I honestly don't know how we didn't come completely unhinged under the weight of it all. (We did come unhinged, just not completely).

Even now that we've lived comfortably in our mostly-completed house for the past few months, and our to-do lists are tamed to crazy-but-vaguely-managable levels, and we've regained much of our sanity, I don't like to reflect back on what those "early years" were like. I'm haunted by their awfulness. You could not pay me to go back to that point in time, when we didn't know a thing, when we hadn't built what we have now.

We've worked our asses off to have such miraculous luxuries as hot running water, a table, a nice place to poop, a warming wood stove, a functional kitchen. We've beaten the learning curve. We've carved out a comfortable life. Each improvement gives us a better grasp on what used to be a very tenuous happiness. With such a foundation as we've built for ourselves, our homesteading lives will only get better and easier.


Whenever we're faced with a setback that threatens any of our hard-won victories, we're sucked emotionally back into that dark time before our house was built. It feels overwhelmingly horrible. It's almost unbearable to see the progress for which we fought tooth and nail disappear before our eyes. Giving up ground to entropy and failure might actually be worse than never having gained ground at all. Sometimes I wonder if we have actual PTSD from what we put ourselves through.

The water fiasco was one such setback that sent us into the darkest of moods. Tyler got on a rant about how everything in our house is horrible and how "two morons built it," while I was upset because with the number of mini floods we've had in this house while working out kinks in our water system, "we are systematically ruining the cabinets I built!"

Ah, well. We sighed. We swore. We mustered the wherewithal to tackle the problem. Tyler got the pipes welded, and we ordered another water heater as a backup. Next year we'll be ready.

Tyler Soldering Burst Pipe Tyler Soldering Burst Pipe


Thank you for sharing this. It's hard to talk about our failures, our questioning, and the general dark parts of our choices, especially when we tend to see only others' triumphs. This is important.
Posted by Jack on February 27th, 2016 at 12:30 PM
Hey guys glad 2 c the post and making it through another challenge. Even though the water fiasco was mentally draining you are both in a better situation than 90% of people out there who are drowning in a mortgage and going to jobs they hate on a daily basis. One perspective i've carried with me since my Marine Corps days is, "it could always be worse." Hope to c more posts in the future and more fun to come with the orchard & gardening season just around the corner. Cheers from sunny seattle!
Posted by aaron on February 27th, 2016 at 10:22 PM
Phew ... your BACK! We were worried. But again: Amazing: You keep us updated even through such difficult times where you definetely have more important things on your mind. We continue to cross fingers for you and try to send positive karma. You guys are a role model! Helen & Scott Nearing 2.0! We have so much respect for what you are doing. All the best from the bottom of our hearts. Heiner & Tanja
Posted by Heiner & Tanja from Germany on February 28th, 2016 at 8:13 AM
Oy Vey!
The old 1 step forward 2 steps back.
How frustrating!!
Is that the vent peeking up just above the counter in the 4th pic?
Hang in there.
Posted by Anne on February 29th, 2016 at 5:51 AM
I froze the main water line coming into my current home the first year I lived there - pinhole leak in a brass elbow that took me half a day to thaw and diagnose, and then another half day to get the parts and fix the leak. All while I was struggling with other renovations in the dead of winter.

I manage construction for a living, and the best part of doing your own work is that at least you know the moron doing the work :)

Instead of fiddling with the venting to try to avoid air infiltration, you might have more success trying to improve heating in the mounting location for the heater. I can't quite make out how it's mounted, but it could be that it's in a corner with restricted heat circulation, lowering the temperature in comparison to the home temperature. Providing better air circulation to the unit, or perhaps a dedicated heat emitter in that corner, may be sufficient even with cold air infiltration.

Best of luck!
Posted by Sam on February 29th, 2016 at 7:13 PM
This was a good one, glad I was on mute for a meeting call I was on as I totally let go on the "Two morons" comment! Sounds like you two are cooler headed then my wife and I as when I usually let go I end up with comments on projects I have not completed or sucked at. Keep going!
Posted by Jason N (jclaudii) on April 25th, 2016 at 3:46 PM