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The overnight dose of cold weather caught me off guard, and I woke up this morning with a frozen pipe. My first response, predictably, was frustration and a momentary dose of depression – My day is ruined! – followed in short order by a plan to get it thawed out and see if it has burst. A burst pipe is not the end of life as we know it. At worst it’s a damn nuisance.

As a novelist who writes about past eras, my next though was of course to think about such setbacks for our ancestors. Frozen pipes did not become a problem until the advent of indoor plumbing, and in the era when homebuilders relied on designs from before the indoor-plumbing era, I doubt if they were much of a problem either. Houses were built to keep in the heat, typically had cellars where feasible, and we only large enough to accommodate the direct needs of the family. With one centrally located bathroom in the house, and one kitchen sink, and a laundry room that was likely to be detached with shut-off valves for cold weather, it wasn’t too much of a task to defend your pipes against cold air.

With the housing booms of the twentieth century came inexpensive construction methods. Deficiencies of construction could be compensated by cheaper and ostensibly better energy sources; the gas furnace replaced the woodstove, forced-air fans took the place of radiators. But you also see pipes running up exterior walls, and (as in the case of my house) concrete-slab construction that in some cases puts water pipes overhead in the attic spaces.

The worst house I ever lived in for frozen pipes was in Louisiana, where keeping houses cool in the summer was much more of an issue and as a result pier-and-beam construction was the norm. Whenever a bad cold snap came, and they came like clockwork every two or three years, everybody in the neighborhood would be out under their houses, blow driers and heat tape in hand.

I’m not claiming that life would be better if we had to go out to the well and bring in buckets of water, but I do recognize that frozen pipes are something of a modern problem. So I watch my space heater and wait for the thaw.

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