How to Prevent Freezing Pipes
With the recent bone-chilling temps here in Central Virginia, many homeowners are understandably concerned about the possibility of frozen or burst pipes. In fact, every winter season, pipes in a home are at risk of damage from freezing conditions.
Pipes most at risk for freezing include: exposed pipes in unheated areas of the home; pipes located in exterior walls; and any plumbing on the exterior of the home.
The following tips can help you safeguard your home before, during and after a pipe freezes:
- Disconnect all gardening hoses and install covers on all outside faucets. A frozen garden hose can cause more damage than a busted hose; it can actually burst an interior pipe. When the water in the hose freezes, it expands, increasing pressure throughout the whole plumbing system. As part of your regular routine in the fall, garden hoses should be disconnected, drained, and stored before the first hard freeze. If you don’t have frost-proof spigots, close the interior shut-off valve leading to that faucet, open and drain the spigot, and install a faucet insulator. They cost a few dollars and are worth every penny.
- Keep your house temperature at 68 degrees or higher, even if you’re leaving the house for an extended period of time.
- Open cabinet doors below sinks to allow heat from the home to circulate.
- Identify the location of the main water valve and the valve on your water heater.(Learning the location of these valves may come in handy during an emergency.)
- Wrap pipes nearest exterior walls and in crawl spaces with pipe insulation or with heating tape. This can prevent freezing, especially for interior pipes that run along outside walls. Often, inexpensive foam pipe insulation is enough for moderately cold climates. For severe climes, opt for wrapping problem pipes with thermostatically controlled heat tape (from $50 to $200, depending on length), which will turn on at certain minimum temps.
- Close all windows near water pipes; cover or close open-air vents. Freezing temperatures combined with wind drafts can cause pipes to freeze more frequently.
- Heat your basement and consider weather sealing your windows.
- Insulate outside walls and unheated areas of your home.
- If you plan to be away from home for an extended period of time, shut off water supply valves to your washing machine. Additional preventative measures must be taken to adequately protect the home from frozen pipes – make sure the furnace is set no lower than 55 degrees, and shut off the main water supply and drain the system by opening all faucets and flushing the toilets.
In extreme situations (vacation home in a bitterly cold climate), have a plumber come to inspect the system, drain the hot water heater, and perhaps replace the water in traps and drains with nontoxic antifreeze.
Monitor Freezing Pipe Conditions
Allow a faucet to drip slightly (lukewarm water) in order to minimize freezing. The first sign of freezing is reduced water flow from a faucet. Check your faucets for water flow and pressure before you go to sleep and again when you wake up.
Check pipes around your water meter, in unheated areas, near exterior walls and in crawl spaces as these tend to be vulnerable to freezing conditions. Identify cold air drafts coming in from a flue or chimney chase and caulk gaps that are near pipes.
If a Pipe Freezes
If a faucet or pipe inside your house freezes, you can thaw it using a good hair dryer. (For safety purposes, avoid operating a hair dryer around standing water.) To thaw a frozen pipe, heat water on the stove, soak towels in the hot water and wrap them around cold sections of the pipes. Start thawing it nearest to the faucet. Make sure the faucet is turned on so that melted water can drip out.
If a Pipe Bursts
Shut off water at the main valve. If the break is in a hot water pipe, the valve on top of the water heater should be closed.
Call a plumber. Keep an emergency number nearby for quick access.
By taking preventive measures before cold weather arrives, you can potentially avoid freezing pipes and the costly damage that goes with them. Exposed pipes in the basement are rarely in danger of freezing because they are in a heated portion of the home, but plumbing pipes in an unheated area, such as an attic, crawl space or garage, are at risk of freezing.
If pipes traveling in exterior walls have frozen in the past (tell-tale signs include water damage, mold and moisture build-up), it’s probably because of inadequate or improperly installed insulation. It might well be worth the couple hundred dollars it costs to open up the wall and increase the insulation.