You need to know how to prevent frozen pipes long before the forecast calls for winter weather. Why? Because once the temperatures start dropping below 30˚F/-1˚C water in the pipes is already starting to freeze, and plumbers are already overwhelmed helping people who didn’t take precautions.
WHY PIPES BURST IN THE WINTER
Pipes break in freezing temperatures due to two reasons: expansion and pressure. Since water expands when it freezes, it can place enormous strain on the walls of a pipe and eventually cause them to burst. Ruptures also occur between the site of freezing and the water source as enormous pressure against the blockage builds up.
ARE YOUR PIPES AT RISK?
In Western and Southern states, where Arctic temperatures are uncommon, homes are often constructed with minimal insulation and their pipes are often located in crawlspaces beneath the home. A bitter cold is a rare event in these warmer climes, so homeowners haven’t developed the seasonal routines that help Northerners protect their plumbing each winter.
On the other hand, homes in the Midwest and Northeast are almost uniformly built with pipes located inside the house, behind insulation, to help prevent freezing. That’s not to say they’re invulnerable: depending on the age of your home and how cold it gets, your insulation may have settled or not be sufficient. Power outages that knock out heat can also lead to frozen pipes even in well-insulated homes. Meanwhile, outdoor pipes remain exposed and vulnerable.
Then, too, even good insulation won’t protect your pipes if you don’t take the appropriate precautions. Just ask these Minnesota homeowners who returned from their winter vacation to discover their pipes had burst and their home was covered in ice, inside and out.
How To Prevent Frozen Pipes
Prevention is the best protection, so take the time to perform the tasks below now before temperatures begin to dip. Then, as the seasons change, add a few more things to your end-of-autumn chores and you’ll be ahead of the game.
Do This Now
Find your water’s main shutoff valve: You need to know where this is before anything goes wrong. You also need to know what tools are required to shut it off and store those in an easily-accessible location. The last thing you want is to find yourself standing at in the dark, at 3 AM, in a growing puddle of water because a blizzard knocked out your power.
Check your insulation: Crawl into the attic, head out to the garage, go down to the basement, and scurry beneath the house to look at your plumbing. Add additional insulation and/or wrap exposed pipes. Even if you live in an area where freezing temperatures are rare, you won’t want to leave this to the last minute. If additional insulation is not practical, consider installing heat cables that turn on automatically when the temperatures plunge.
Caulk or seal gaps around plumbing: Since homes settle over time, caulk around pipes can break and crumble. Check where your pipes enter the home and re-caulk if needed. (Here’s a good guide on re-caulking.)
Get your supplies ready: Be sure to have insulated faucet covers for each external spigot.
Install alarms where dryness matters most: Although meteorology is supposedly a “science”, meteorologists are often wrong. I recall one Christmas Eve where our area’s most-experienced weatherman predicted rain and maybe 1/2 inch of snow because he didn’t think the temperatures would dip much. We woke up to an inch of ice beneath 8 inches of snow, no electricity or heat, and a burst pipe that had filled our basement with 3 inches of water. We’ve relied on these battery-operated leak alarms ever since. They’re great in areas prone to flooding during heavy rains, too.
Do This When Autumn Ends
Drain pool and sprinkler pipes: Turn off the supply lines to the pool and lawn sprinklers when temperatures begin to dip, then drain the lines by turning the systems on until no more water comes out. If you have an air compressor, you can blow the lines clear yourself; otherwise, call your lawn service company.
Put away hoses and drain faucets: First, remove your garden hoses from outdoor spigots, drain and roll them up for use next year. Next, locate the indoor valve that controls the outdoor faucets and shut off the outside water. Finally, allow the faucets to run until they’re dry, turn them off, and top them with insulated faucet covers.
Do This When a Hard Freeze is Expected
It’s not just the actual temperatures that can cause pipes to burst — sometimes it’s the wind chill combined with the temperature. That’s not a phrase Southerners are used to hearing on their weather forecasts, but those of us in the Midwest can recall many a day when the temps were in the low 40s but brisk winds made it feel more like 30°. Your pipes feel that decrease in air temperature, too, so on cold, windy days, you may need to protect against freezing pipes even if the mercury isn’t expected to plunge below freezing.
Open cabinet doors beneath sinks: Cabinet doors can prevent warm home air from circulating around the pipes beneath your sink. Prop the doors open to keep pipes from freezing, but first, make sure you don’t have poisonous cleaners or other dangerous items that children or pets might get into.
Leave the garage closed: Your garage door can provide considerable protection from wind chills and freezing air so long as you leave it closed.
Let water faucets trickle: It’s annoying to hear them run and certainly not free, but a small stream of water coursing through the pipes can prevent ice blockages from forming.
Keep the heat up: Since temperatures often plunge overnight, you should set the thermostat to 60° or higher when your area has been experiencing deep freezes.
You might end up paying a bit more on your utility bills to prevent your pipes from freezing, but that’s less expensive than fixing and replacing things after a pipe burst. As for whether burst pipes are covered by homeowner’s insurance, the answer is: maybe, but you’ll still end up paying your deductible, and your rates may go up.
What To Do If Pipes Freeze
Don’t panic. Leave the water barely turned on and try to defrost the pipe by directing a hair dryer or space heater at it. Do not use these in areas with standing water or near flammable substances.
•If water begins to flow slowly after a few minutes, continue applying heat until the ice blockage is completely melted.
•If there’s no water after 5-10 minutes or so, shut the faucet off and call the plumber, so you don’t cause the pipes to burst.