Kansas Snapshots by Gloria Freeland - February 9, 2024


Daughter Mariya has a few "pet" words she uses to emphasize a point. They are typically just a variation on an original. "Goowd" is her version of good. Sending a nice photo might receive a "Purdy" response. "Hweird" is her choice for weird, reserved for particularly odd situations.

The most recent "Hweird" was attached to an e-mail responding to a comment by husband Art. The situation began with a selfie of her holding a hair dryer and grinning like the cat who had just eaten the canary. The copper water pipes to the kitchen sink in their home run against an outside wall. Fearing they might freeze during the recent sub-zero temperatures, Mariya opened the faucets slightly to allow a small amount of water to pass through. But she later discovered the flow had been inadequate and one pipe had frozen. She thawed it using the dryer as a heat gun, thus prompting the photo.

When she mentioned it was the hot pipe that had frozen, Art commented that was normal. He said plumbers have long observed that even if the cold and hot pipes are in close proximity to each other, the one carrying the hot water is far more likely to be the one that freezes first. That prompted Mariya's "Hweird!" response.

Art said if you do a little internet searching, you can find tons of "reasons" supplied by folks ranging from speculating plumbers to degree-bearing professors ... and virtually all are wrong. The definitive answer was found in 1916 by Frank E. Brown - a native Kansan no less! - and Waldemar Noll, both physicists at the University of Iowa. While others guessed at the reason, they addressed the situation scientifically. The opening two lines of the first paragraph of their paper presented to the Iowa Academy of Science clearly describes the problem:

Plumbers often notice that the hot water pipes in a plumbing system that lead to the bathroom or kitchen burst more frequently than the pipes carrying cold water. It is said that the ratio is at least four to one.

Just like kids performing a seventh-grade science experiment, they first checked to see whether the disparity was real. They took 100 glass tubes and filled half with tap water and the remaining ones with tap water that was first boiled. Using glass allowed them to better observe what was happening. Set outside in sub-freezing conditions, 44 of the tubes burst, 36 of which were the ones containing the boiled water. The difference was no illusion!

Cutting to the chase, further experimentation revealed the difference was caused by small bubbles in the cold water. The journey from source to the tap involved twists, turns and pumps that introduce very small bubbles. As water cools and turns to ice, it expands. The bubbles act as temporary squeezable buffers, allowing the expanding water as it turns to ice to flow away.

The water heater eliminates the bubbles and the protection they afford. So the hot pipe doesn't freeze quicker; the cold one freezes slower.

The men tested this hypothesis by adding small bubbles to the heated water and repeating the experiment and found both groups then froze at the same rate.

But that wasn't Mariya’s only "Hweird" experience. Kansas State University had been the victim of a cyber attack and all of us email users had to affirm our user names and change our passwords. Both Mariya and I had changed our phones since the previous such process and were unable to connect to make the changes, despite having the same numbers and carriers as before. Mariya had a back-up email account that could be used for verification, but wondered why she needed to do that since her number was unchanged ... a situation she declared as "Hweird." I didn't have a back-up account and so had to go the help-line route.

Art explained that every phone has a unique IMEI - International Mobile Equipment Identity - number and systems seeking additional security can read it remotely and save it. But when you get a new phone, while the carrier and calling number are unchanged, the IMEI no longer matches and the connection may be blocked. Many carriers who have a phone reported as stolen will have the IMEI blacklisted, effectively making the phone useless.

"Hweird" happenings are often ones we just aren't familiar with. Water vapor - a gas - changes directly to a solid when snow flakes form. But since it happens far above us, we don't usually see it. My engineering husband told me this is called "deposition" and is what also occurs when frost forms on a window - often in the cold of night when we aren't watching. That frost may disappear without ever melting - changing from a solid to a gas in a process called "sublimation."

If water vapor turns to water, we get rain. If that water then freezes, we don't get snow, but hail.

That pipe-freezing cold snap also generated a bunch of seemingly widely-reported "Hweird" events for drivers of electric vehicles. Pulling into a fast-charge stations, they were frustrated their cars wouldn't charge. When technology changes, some adaptation is almost always required. When microwave ovens appeared, we had to learn not to put metals in them. When cars first arrived, we switched from feeding our transportation hay to fueling it with gasoline. The batteries in EVs don't charge well at low temperatures, so to keep from damaging the batteries, the fast chargers won't engage. A solution is to use the vehicles battery heater, but it also uses energy, shortening the driving range. Gas-powered vehicles use more fuel as the thermometer drops, so it is a good idea to keep the tank a bit more full in cold weather. For an EV, it isn't a good idea to keep the charge up, it's essential.

So there you have it ... a whole column about science. How "Hweird" is that?

Top (l-r): Mariya's copper kitchen pipes fastened to the outside wall at the right; Waldomar Noll; Frank Brown; deposition creates a snowflake-like pattern on a window pane. Bottom (l-r): IMEI number on one of Art's old Samsung phones; some of my (green) and Mariya's text messages where she used her signature "Hweird" word; Chicago Tesla owner is unable to charge his car.

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