How to Keep Your Pipes from Freezing in Winter
When the temperature drops below freezing - especially for sustained periods as it has done consistently in the northeast over the last couple of winters - many homeowners find themselves dealing with pipes that have frozen and burst. Not only is this a serious inconvenience, it can cause significant properly damage - especially if no one is home when it happens!
So, what can you do to prevent your pipes from freezing?
First, let's talk about the process itself. When the temperature drops (especially in the teens or lower), any exposed pipes cool down and the water within them can freeze. This is especially true for pipes on the outside of the house, in crawl spaces, basements, attics, etc.
When water freezes, the molecules line up into a geometric shape that takes up more space, causing the water within the pipes to expand by as much as 9 percent. This freezing water expansion squeezes the water between the ice and the closed faucet or valve, building up the pressure (PSI) enough to actually burst the pipe. At that moment - or soon afterward when the ice thaws - water sprays from the split pipe potentially causing significant damage.
At that point, you need to shut off the main water supply to your house and contact a plumber for emergency service. Once the pipes are fixed, you'll have to deal with insurance companies, clean up, wall and floor repair, etc. Take action before this happens!
How to Help Prevent Your Pipes from Freezing
- Take hoses off outside hose bibs and yard hydrants.
- Check heating oil and propane levels in tanks.
- Do not run fire places and or supplemental heaters near thermostats that control the main heat in the home.
- If you know you have a problem area in your plumbing and a cold snap is imminent, a quick (but temporary) solution is to preemptively open the hot and cold water faucets to relieve the water pressure in the piping problem area. Just a very small trickle or drip is enough to open the system and significantly reduce the water pressure in the pipe.
- Another simple and quick - but temporary - fix is to preemptively open cabinet doors and vanities to allow warm air to flow into the space where problem pipes might be located.
- If you don't have frost-proof exterior water spigots, then you need to be sure to insulate the pipes on your exterior water faucets. Also, turn off the exterior spigots using the inside valve and drain the system for the winter. You can then cover the outside faucets with foam insulation kits, too.
- Insulate your pipes in basements, crawl spaces and attics. Essentially, insulate any pipes that might be exposed to freezing temperatures, including those close to exterior walls that get very cold.
- In additional to insulating the pipes, be sure to properly insulate attics, basements and crawl spaces themselves.
- If you have a known trouble area, you can get heat tape and apply it to the pipe to prevent freezing. This, too, is a temporary fix. You should contact a plumber for a more permanent solution. And be sure to keep the heat tape away from any flammable materials.
- Add weather stripping, sealant and door sweeps to any areas where outside air might be penetrating your house.
- If you're out of town, remember to have someone check your house daily.