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, water in the pipes is already beginning to freeze, and plumbers are already overwhelmed assisting people who didn’t take precautions.
Why Pipes Need Winter Protection
Water Expansion and Pressure
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 plumbing pipes and eventually cause them to burst. Ruptures also occur between the water main and the frozen area as pressure against the ice block builds up.
Cold Snaps Happen Everywhere
In Western and Southern states, where Arctic temperatures are uncommon, pipes are often located in crawlspaces beneath the home. A bitter cold is a rare event in these climes, so homeowners haven’t developed seasonal routines to protect their plumbing each winter.
On the other hand, homes in the Midwest and Northeast have 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 in any region are exposed and vulnerable.
How To Prevent Frozen Pipes
Prevention is the best protection, so take the time to perform the following tasks before temperatures dip.
Know Where Your Water Shutoff Valve Is
Although the steps which follow should prevent burst pipes, it’s always helpful to know where your home’s water shutoff valve before anything goes wrong. That way, if an unexpected cold front moves in — or if you forget to prepare in advance — you can keep a burst pipe from flooding your home.
Once you find the main water valve, see if you need any special tools to turn it off. Gather them in one spot, so you don’t have to stumble around searching for them in a panic.
Insulate Exposed Pipes
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 or wrap exposed pipes. If insulation isn’t practical, you can easily install heating cables that automatically turn on when it’s freezing outside.
Install Water Leak Alarms in the Basement
Many homeowners use their basement to store mementos and out-of-season clothing or holiday decor. A burst pipe can put these things at risk. If you don’t go into your basement very often, you may not even realize it’s filling with water.
A battery-operated leak alarm is loud enough to be heard throughout your home and will notify you of any excess moisture. Installation doesn’t require any special tools: you just install the batteries and put the alarm on the basement floor. If water touches the housing, the alarm will shriek to let you know. They’re helpful in flood-prone areas, too.
Drain Your Pool and Irrigation System
Cooler temperatures signal the end of the swimming season. Your lawn’s grass goes dormant around that time, too. Any water remaining in the supply lines to your pool or irrigation system is likely to freeze once winter sets in, and that expansion can cause the pipes to burst.
Turn off the water supply to the pool and lawn sprinklers when temperatures begin to dip. Drain the lines by running the system until no more water comes out. If you have an air compressor, you can blow the lines clear yourself. Otherwise, call your service company.
Put Away Hoses and Drain the Tap
Removing outdoor hoses before the first hard freeze isn’t just about protecting them from damage. It’s also about keeping the pipe leading to the spigot from bursting.
So, around mid-autumn, make a point to remove your garden hoses from outdoor spigots, then drain and roll them up for use next year. Next, locate the valve that shuts off the water to outside faucets. Finally, open the outdoor taps and let them run dry, then turn them off and slip and insulated faucet cover over them.
Protect Your Pipes During Winter
Low temperatures are not the only reason pipes can freeze during the winter. Windy days can make the air outside feel below freezing, even when the temperatures are not. 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 reaching the pipes beneath your sink. Prop the doors open to keep pipes from freezing. If you have pets or children, make sure to move poisonous cleaners or other dangerous items you ordinarily store beneath the sink.
Let the Water Run a Little
Most of the time, your home is warm enough to keep indoor pipes from freezing. If the power goes out, however, you may not be able to run your heater to keep the pipes (and you) warm enough.
A power outage is another instance when it pays to know where your water shutoff valve is located. Since that spot is where your home’s water service originates, leave a faucet running on the other side of the house to keep things flowing freely through your indoor plumbing system. It does not need to be a strong flow — even a slow trickle of one-gallon per hour will work.
If you were unable to shut off or insulate outdoor pipes, you should leave them trickling during a hard freeze, too.
Keep Your Home Warm Enough
Keeping your thermostat set low is a great way to save on heating costs during the winter. Setting it below 55°F, or turning the heat off while you’re gone, is an awful idea that can lead to burst pipes and water damage.
What To Do If Pipes Freeze
If an unexpected plunge in the temperatures catches you off guard, or you forgot to winterize your pipes and one burst, act quickly to prevent expensive damage to your home.
- Leave the water barely turned on and try to defrost the pipe by directing a hairdryer 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 completely melts.
- If there’s no water after 5-10 minutes or so, shut the faucet off and call the plumber, so you don’t cause damage in less accessible areas, which could result in even more costly repairs.