For most of the country, winter brings plummeting temperatures. As the leaves begin to fall, the countdown to the first snow begins, and homeowners begin winterizing their houses.
Freezing and bursting pipes are a common and expensive frustration to many people. During cold weather, ruptured pipes are one of the most common causes of property damage, and the resulting water damage can easily cost $5,000 or more to repair.
But there are steps you can take to prevent ice blockages and freezing pipes as well as protect your water systems. Although keeping your pipes warm during the winter may raise your heating bill a little, the temporary inconvenience is well-worth avoiding the frustration of a burst water line.
As temperatures drop, water begins to freeze, and water pipes are particularly vulnerable to freezing. But a frozen pipe is more than an inconvenience. Water pipes that freeze are at risk of rupturing, leading to serious leaks and flooding.
When water freezes, it expands. The expanding tendency explains why you have to be careful with what you put in a freezer — some objects, such as soda cans, will explode if left in a freezing environment for too long. The same principle applies to water pipes. If the water inside freezes, it expands, putting the whole system at risk of rupture. However, the pipe rarely bursts where ice has formed — instead, freezing portions of the pipe force pressure “downstream,” between the faucet and the ice blockage. This is where the pipe bursts — usually, in places without any ice at all.
Wind chill plays a significant role in freezing pipes, too. If unheated spaces have holes, cracks or openings that allow cold, outside air to blow in, the cooling effect often accelerates ice formation. Even small openings can allow a dangerous amount of cold air into a structure, like the small holes that let telephone, cable, internet or television lines enter a room.
It’s not just northern regions that experience frozen pipes, either. Water systems in southern climates are at an even higher risk of frozen or ruptured pipes — often, in warm climates, homes aren’t designed with freezing temperatures in mind, and homeowners aren’t familiar with winterizing techniques. When a cold snap occurs, many warm-weather structures are unprepared, leading to ice blockages, burst pipes and flooded homes.
Pipes located in unheated interior spaces are especially prone to ice blockage, including garages, attics and basements — in fact, up to 37 percent of all frozen pipe failures occur in basements. Even pipe systems that thread through cabinets or exterior walls can freeze under the right conditions.
The Minimum Temperature to Keep Pipes From Freezing
As a general rule, the “temperature alert threshold” for freezing pipes is about 20 degrees Fahrenheit. This temperature was determined by researchers at the Building Research Council at the University of Illinois, who determined that uninsulated water pipes began freezing when the temperatures outside dropped to 20 degrees or below.
However, this is not a hard-set rule. Depending on their exposure to wind and the elements, pipes can freeze when temperatures are higher than 20 degrees. In interior spaces, if pipes are near cracks or openings that let in cold air, they may develop ice blockages even if they are in a heated space.
To keep your pipes from freezing and bursting, make sure they are not exposed to temperatures approaching the alert threshold of 20 degrees.
What to Do If Your Pipes Freeze
If your pipes are frozen, you can take steps to reduce potential damage and help melt the ice blockages — but not every cold snap will mean frozen and blocked pipes. Look for these signs to check if your water system is truly frozen:
- Frosty pipes: If a section of your piping system is exposed, check to see if any frost has developed on the surface. If it has, there is a good chance your pipe is frozen.
- Unusual smells: Strange and odorous smells coming up from a drain or faucet could indicate a frozen pipe. If your pipes are blocked by ice, the smells have nowhere to escape except back in the direction of your home.
- No water: One of the most obvious signs that a pipe has frozen is a lack of running water. If you turn on a faucet and nothing or only a small trickle of water comes out, this probably indicates that the pipe has an ice block.
Once you’ve determined your pipes have frozen, you can take steps to thaw them out. However, take care when trying to unfreeze any pipes — if one of them has burst, thawing them out could cause a flood. For broken pipes, the best course of action is to turn off your water at the main shutoff valve and consult with an experienced plumber. They can resolve the problem before spring temperatures unfreeze the pipes and flood your home.
If your pipes aren’t ruptured, you can take the following steps to unfreeze them and restore running water to your home:
- First, turn on the faucet. As the ice plug in your pipe begins to melt, you want the water to be able to flow through the pipe. The running water will help melt the rest of the ice.
- Apply heat to the frozen portion of the pipe. If you can access the portion of pipe that has ice, you can begin thawing it by directly applying heat. Wrap an electric heating pad around the section of pipe, or use a portable space heater or an electric hair dryer.
- Keep applying heat until the full water pressure is restored. Check all other faucets in your home to see if any other pipes show signs of freezing — if one pipe has frozen, it’s likely that others have as well.
If you aren’t able to locate the frozen section of pipe, call a licensed plumber to help.
10 Tips to Prevent Frozen Pipes in Winter
It’s easy for pipes to freeze during a cold winter. Fortunately, it’s just as easy to protect them from the low temperatures. Here are 10 ways to keep your pipes from freezing, even during a record cold snap.
1. Insulate Pipes
The best way to keep your pipes from freezing is to purchase specifically designed pipe insulation.
Pipe insulation is often remarkably inexpensive, and it is a small investment compared to the repair costs of a burst water pipe. When insulating your water system, pay particular attention to pipes in unheated, interior spaces of your home, such as in your attic, garage or basement.
The most common kinds of pipe insulation are made from fiberglass, polyethylene or foam. If a cold weather is headed your way and you need emergency insulation, you can use duct tape and wadded up newspaper for a temporary solution.
2. Keep Garage Doors Closed
One way to keep your pipes from freezing is to keep garage doors closed. This one is especially important if water supply lines go through the garage — most often, garages feature high amounts of smooth concrete, which keep the space cold. The space is cold enough without letting in more freezing air, which will drop the overall temperature of the garage. A garage door accidentally left open leaves any water supply lines vulnerable to freezing temperatures, which is a disaster waiting to happen.
3. Open Cabinets
Periodically, open your bathroom and kitchen cabinets to keep warm air circulating around the plumbing. The heated air will help prevent ice blockages and pressure buildups in the pipes. If you are expecting a particularly cold night, opening up your cabinets before you go to bed can help keep your pipes clear and warm despite the freezing temperatures.
If you have small children or curious pets in your home, make sure to remove all household chemicals or toxic cleaners from the cabinets before leaving them open.
4. Let Faucets Drip
One way to keep your pipes from freezing is to leave a faucet running.
You don’t have to turn on all the faucets in your home. First, determine which ones are fed by exposed piping. Once you’ve narrowed it down, leave these few faucets on during especially bitter weather. Running water, even a small trickle, carries more internal energy than standing water. Because of the friction created by the constant movement, moving water produces a small amount of heat and is harder to freeze than standing. By just leaving a few faucets running, the movement will help prevent ice blockages from forming in your plumbing.
Even more than the small amount of friction and heat produced by moving water, a running faucet relieves pressure build-up in cold pipes. This helps to keep your pipes from bursting, even if the water inside freezes. If both hot and cold water lines are exposed, leave both slightly running to make sure pressure doesn’t build up in one and not the other.
5. Keep the Thermostat Consistent
One of the best ways to prevent ice blockages is to keep your thermostat set to the same temperature during the day and the night. While many homeowners tend to lower their thermostats during the evening to save money on their heating bill, the strategy may ultimately backfire — a burst pipe costs much more than a slightly higher bill.
Instead, try to keep your thermostat settings as consistent as possible during the day and the night. Since steady temperatures will help keep your pipes free of ice, avoid any sudden changes in the environment of your home.
6. Seal Cracks and Openings
Inspect your home for any holes, cracks or openings before winter to stop any drafts from freezing your water systems.
Check around windows and door frames for any cracks, and examine any cable holes in your walls and floors, such as ones for television, WiFi or cable wires. Seal any openings around the sill plates, where your house rests on its foundation. Caulk any cracks or holes directly around piping, both on the exterior and interior walls. This helps keep warm air contained, and besides preventing ice blockage, it will increase your home’s insulation.
7. Leave the Heat On
If you plan on leaving your home during the winter, make sure you leave your heat on while you’re away.
Turning on your heat for an empty house may seem counterintuitive. But while a lower temperature may reduce your heating bill, it could mean disaster if cold temperatures hit, and your pipes freeze and burst.
This doesn’t mean you have to keep your house as warm as normal — any temperature 55 degrees or higher is appropriate to keep your pipes safe.
8. Open Interior Doors
Another way to keep your home a consistent temperature is to keep all interior doors open.
Pipes are often located in bathroom and kitchen cabinets, many times in the central spaces of your home. However, even these pipes are vulnerable to freezing — to some degree, most homes have an uneven distribution of warmth throughout the structure.
To help keep heat evenly and consistently spread around your home, keep interior doors open. This invites air circulation to move warm air from room to room and is a useful strategy during cold snaps.
9. Seal Crawl Spaces
If your winter looks like it will be especially bitter, you will probably need to temporarily cover any ventilated crawl spaces in your home.
Covering crawl spaces can reduce the amount of cold air surrounding your pipes. To seal your crawl space, use foam pieces cut to the dimension of the vents. Secure them in place with duct tape, and you have an efficient and inexpensive solution for cold winter nights.
10. Use Heating Tape
For piping systems that are easily accessible, you can apply electrical heating tape directly to the pipe to help it retain heat. This can be especially helpful for pipes in unheated or exterior locations, such as in cold attics or basements.
There are two different kinds of heating tape you can use — self-monitoring and manual. The first type of heating tape has a sensor and turns on and off by itself whenever it senses that the pipe needs more heat. The manual type of heating tape requires you to plug it in whenever heat is needed and unplug it once the pipe is warm.
Like any heating system, the electrical heating tape can be dangerous. Make sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions and safety procedures when applying it to your pipe systems.
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