Protecting Your Pipes from a Hard Freeze: What You Need to Know

Winter and the freezing conditions that come along with it are inevitable for most locations in the world. And even if you do not live in a place that has incredibly low temperatures, protecting your home from any damage caused by cold is an important part of being a homeowner or tenant.

One of the aspects of annual winterization is looking after the pipes in your house. Because freezing and burst pipes are a common frustration for many people, and the expense and hassle that comes along with getting them fixed, it is crucial to ensure your pipes will be safe all winter. Pipe ruptures are an avoidable problem, and being proactive before the wintry weather hits will save you water damage and a repair bill of $5,000 or more. 

How Do Pipes Freeze?

Any pipe that is more directly exposed to cold temperatures is at risk of freezing. This includes swimming pool supply pipes, water sprinkler lines, pipes that run against uninsulated exterior walls, and water supply pipes in unheated interior areas.  

Because water expands when it freezes, any ice blockage in your pipes will put extreme pressure on their material, straining it until it bursts. A mere 1/8-inch crack in your pipe can leak up to 250 gallons of water a day, causing considerable damage and structural duress, not to mention the future possibility of mold growth within the affected areas. 

Luckily, there are several steps to take to prevent your pipes from freezing, so you can avoid all the hassle and expense such a situation would bring. 

Temperature and Pipe Freezing

One key consideration in keeping your pipes safe is the temperature of your house during the winter. Because the typical temperature threshold for pipes to freeze is about 20 degrees Fahrenheit, you want to make sure that any pipes that are exposed to that level of cold are well-insulated and protected. One of the best ways to ensure your pipes do not freeze over the winter is to keep your house temperature at around 45 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit. 

How to Keep Your Pipes from Freezing

By acting before winter arrives in your location, you can ensure that your pipes and house will be able to endure the chilly weather as issue-free as possible. The following are 8 steps you can take to prevent freezing and burst pipes, protect your water systems, and safeguard their maximum lifespan: 

Install pipe insulation on and around any water pipes that run through uninsulated sections of your house, such as attics, crawlspaces, or unfinished basements. This will help keep the pipes safe from cold temperatures. Pipe insulation can be in the form of foam sleeves, pipe tape, batt insulation, expanding foam, or electrical heating tape. 

  • Install pipe insulation on and around any water pipes that run through uninsulated sections of your house, such as attics, crawlspaces, or unfinished basements. This will help keep the pipes safe from cold temperatures. Pipe insulation can be in the form of foam sleeves, pipe tape, batt insulation, expanding foam, or electrical heating tape. 
  • Seal any cracks or gaps in your house to prevent the flow of freezing air that could come in. Check around the window and door frames for openings, inspect cable holes in the walls and floors, and seal any gaps with caulking.  Also, make sure to seal up any crawl spaces where the uninsulated cold could travel in from. 
  • Keep your garage doors closed. Oftentimes, water pipes are routed through the garage of a house, and if the door is left open in the winter, your pipes will be vulnerable to chilly air compounded by cold concrete flooring. 
  • Make sure your thermostat is kept consistent during the day and night. Though you may be tempted to lower the thermostat overnight to save on the heating bill, it is not worth it if the price you pay is a burst pipe. 
  • Open interior doors to help achieve a consistent temperature, such as the bathroom and kitchen cabinets where pipes are often located. Making sure to have an even distribution of heat throughout the house is important for air circulation and keeping your pipes secure. 
  • Keep any outdoor taps shut off at the main valve, and ensure they are drained of water throughout the winter. 
  • If the weather is especially cold and you are worried about the pipes freezing, turn on your faucets to a low, steady drip of water to encourage constant water flow, making it harder for the water to freeze solid. A running faucet relieves pressure buildup in chilly pipes and allows for a small amount of friction and heat to be produced by the running water. If both your hot and cold water lines are exposed to the cold, and you are worried about them, leave both running slightly to ensure pressure does not overly build up in one line. 
  • Have someone drop by your house if you are planning on being away for more than a day or two to ensure the heat stays on and your house is safe. If no one is home for a while, make sure to set the thermostat to 55 degrees Fahrenheit  

If you suspect your pipes might be frozen, you can investigate it further by checking for these signs: 

Are My Pipes Frozen? 
  • Frosty Pipes—Check an exposed section of your piping system for frost developing on the surface of the pipe. If you can see frost externally, there is a good chance the pipe is frozen inside. 
  • No Water—One definite sign of a frozen pipe is a lack of running water. If nothing, or only a dribble, comes out of a tap when you turn it on, your pipes are frozen and blocked by ice. 
  • Strange Smells—If you start to notice odd and pungent smells coming up a drain or through a tap, it could be indicative of frozen pipes, as those smells have nowhere else to go if the pipe is frozen. 
What to Do if Your Pipes Freeze

After confirming that your pipes are indeed frozen, you can thaw them out on your own. Here are some actions you can take to begin to unfreeze the pipes and restore your house’s running water: 

  1. Turn on the faucet and leave it on. As ice blockage in the pipes begins to melt, an open faucet will allow the meltwater to flow through the pipe, and the running water will help facilitate the melting process. 
  2. Apply gentle heat to the frozen section of the pipe if you have access to it. The key here is not to superheat the blocked pipe section but to warm it up by applying direct and gentle heat, such as a portable space heater, an electric hair dryer, or by wrapping an electric heating pad around it. Be patient—this part could take a while. 
  3. Keep applying heat until your normal water pressure is restored. Make sure to check on all the other faucets in your home to see if any other places show signs of pipe freezing, and keep in mind that if one pipe has already frozen, it is likely that others may be frozen too.

Be cautious—if a pipe has burst anywhere, thawing the pipelines can cause flooding in your home. If you suspect a pipe to have ruptured, turning off the water at the main shutoff valve is wise while you wait for a plumber to come and assist you. Further, if you feel uncomfortable with any step in the process of unfreezing your pipes yourself, call a licensed plumber in to give you some help and get your pipe problems sorted out. 

Insuring Pipe Protection  

When it comes to insurance, most home insurance policies will have consideration for frozen and burst pipes. This coverage will likely be applicable if the damage results from the sudden and accidental discharge of water from your plumbing or water system.  

However, a caveat that some policies have deals with pipes freezing and bursting with the homeowner in absentia—if your pipes rupture while you are away for an extended period, your policy may not cover the damage, so you should make sure to speak to your insurance provider about the fine print. 

In general, however, your home insurance policy should cover frozen and burst pipes as an element of environmental or weather-based damage. If you have taken steps to ensure the safety of your pipes and take the necessary precautions to maintain your property and prevent freezing to the best of your abilities, your home should be covered by homeowner’s insurance. 

Protecting Your Pipes from Freezing and Winter Damage 

At the end of the day, ensuring that your pipes are kept safe over the winter from any cold-related damage is quite manageable. If you are proactive before winter comes and maintain daily vigilance throughout the season, you can protect your water systems and pipelines from freezing and rupturing. By following some simple steps, you can ensure that your home, water systems, and piping are all safe and snug as a bug for the entire winter, no matter the weather! 

For more information, the Red Cross has an excellent in-depth guide for protecting your home and pipes during winter, dealing with frozen pipes, and all aspects of water pipe ice blockages. 

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