Prevent Freezing and Bursting Pipes—Here’s How
Follow these tips to prevent frozen pipes or, in a pinch, thaw them quickly before they cause headaches.
The big freeze has many homeowners scrambling for insulation and space heaters, but some of the most important areas to examine in the home during the winterization process are the plumbing pipes. When it comes to severe winter threats to your home, frozen pipes pose one of the most dangerous and costly problems.
Water expands as it freezes, putting significant pressure on pipes until they cannot hold the ice any longer. If you turn on a faucet and only get a trickle of water output, you stand a chance at identifying frozen pipes early enough to thaw them. If you’re out of town for the weekend, however, and miss the warning signs, the result could range from a hairline crack to something that spans the length of the pipe.
The types of metal or plastic pipes most susceptible to freezing (unsurprisingly) include outdoor hose bibs, swimming pool supply lines, water sprinkler lines, but indoor plumbing isn’t necessarily any safer. Plumbing in unheated areas—basements, crawl spaces, attics, garages, exterior walls, or even kitchen cabinets—aren’t well protected from the freezing temperatures, and these pipes can cause the biggest headaches. Frozen pipes that have cracked not only need to be replaced but, if they burst indoors, they can also result in serious water damage in that part of the house within hours of thawing out. Untreated leaks in cabinets, walls, floors, and so on can cost homeowners thousands of dollars to clean up and repair, and even open the door for mold and mildew growth.
While the problem is most common in the Northeast and Midwest, frozen pipes can occur in all regions of the country. If you’re at risk, check out this checklist to help you stop this hazard from striking your home.
How To Prevent Frozen Pipes
The biggest source of seasonal damage can be avoided altogether if you follow these six steps.
STEP 1: Know Your Plumbing
Be prepared for a potential catastrophe by first identifying where your plumbing pipes are run and locating water shut-off valves. Always make sure you have easy access to the main water shut off in case of emergency. (The location may vary depending on the age of your house, but check inside a garage, basement, or laundry room first, and possibly underground in your yard.) Call a professional to have your heating and plumbing system serviced each year, too, so that you’re aware of and can fix small problems before they turn into larger issues down the line.
STEP 2: Drain & Open During the Fall
All outdoor water lines to swimming pools and sprinkler systems should be completely drained in the fall so that there is no moisture left inside to expand in freezing temperatures. (Don’t know where to start? Read up on how to winterize your sprinkler system.) Also, remove and drain hoses and shut off valves to outdoor hose bibs.
It should go without saying, but never put antifreeze in outdoor water supply lines! Despite the promising sound of its name, this product will not prevent frozen pipes; moreover, it’s harmful to children, pets, wildlife, and landscaping.
STEP 3: Insulate, Insulate, Insulate
Water pipes located in unheated exterior walls, basements, crawl spaces, or garages should be well insulated with sleeve-style pipe insulation to help maintain temperatures above 32 degrees Fahrenheit and prevent freezing. It will also help your pipes—not to mention your wallet overall—if you ensure that all rooms are properly insulated and gaps in leaky windows and doors are closed to prevent blustery drafts.
STEP 4: Run the Tiniest Bit of Water
If not during the whole winter season, you may consider opening a couple of faucets in the coldest areas of the house (where pipes would most likely freeze) just enough to let out a trickle of water. By keeping the faucets open, the flowing water helps prevent pipes from freezing.
STEP 5: Heat Exposure
The main thing is to make sure your pipes remain sufficiently warm throughout the winter. That means keeping cold air out or bringing warm air to your cold pipes. To that end, be careful not to close off any indoor pipes from heat in that particular area of the house. Plumbing that runs along an exterior wall through an under-sink cabinet in the kitchen or bathroom vanity, for example, will be colder if you keep the cabinet doors shut. Leave them slightly ajar, however, and they’ll be warmed with the rest of the room as your HVAC system operates. Plugging in space heaters to run on low in problem areas doesn’t hurt, either, during the coldest times of the year.
Whatever you do, never completely stop heat on days or nights that dip below freezing point, even if you’re out of town. Shutting down your HVAC completely could put your pipes at risk of freezing—even bursting—and your vacation at risk of a less-than-fun ending.
STEP 6: Get Smart About Your Resources
A variety of other products also help avoid frozen pipes in the first place. Consider a freeze alarm: For less than $100, you can purchase one from your home improvement center and set it so that it alerts your phone whenever indoor temperatures drop below 45 degrees Fahrenheit so that you can compensate with additional warmth in areas at high risk of frozen pipes. Alternatively, a hot water circulating pump will monitor your pipes’ temperature and automatically circulate warm water throughout the hot and cold water lines whenever temperatures drop below a pre-determined benchmark without tasking the homeowner to address a problem spot.
How to Thaw Frozen Pipes
Fortunately, dealing with freezing pipes quickly can greatly minimize water damage to the home.
STEP 1: Find the Frozen Pipe
First open every faucet in your home to see which, if any, just produces a trickle of water—this is a sign of a frozen pipe—this is a clear sign of a frozen pipe somewhere between the faucet and the water source. Starting at the plumbing nearest the faucet, follow the line away from it and feel every few feet to find the coldest pipes, which will likely hold the icy blockage.
And, remember: If one pipe has frozen, that means others may be susceptible as well. To be sure, check all of the faucets in your home.
STEP 2: Limit the Amount of Water to Run Out
Shut off the water supply to the location of the frozen pipes (or, if easier, the whole house) by turning it clockwise to its “off” position. When the frozen blockage does finally thaw, it may let out any additional liquid backed up behind it and turn up a surprise leak, so grab a bucket, towels, and perhaps a mop to prepare yourself for any icy water that gushes out.
STEP 3: Open Faucets
Drain all of the water remaining in the house by opening every faucet on every sink, shower, and tub and flushing each toilet once.
STEP 4: Heat Things Up
Apply heat to the frozen sections of pipe using an electric heating pad, a hair dryer, or a portable space heater until full water pressure is restored. Warm the edge of the area closest to the nearest outlet in the plumbing—like in the kitchen or bathroom—so that steam or water can easily escape. A space heater (or, if you have zoned heating, an adjustment of the nearest thermostat) could also do the trick to concentrate warmth wherever it’s needed. Whatever you do, never use a blowtorch, propane heater, or other open flames.
STEP 5: Slowly Restore Water Elsewhere
As you turn the water back on throughout the house via the main water supply valve, be on the lookout for any leaks—if you spot any, you’ll need to cut the water supply once again and call a plumber to make repairs ASAP. Close valves and faucets left open from Step 1.
If your frozen pipes appear to be completely thawed, however, focus your energy once more on the preventative measures you can take into your own hands to avoid such a dire situation in future.