How to Keep Pipes From Freezing

How to Prevent Water Pipes From Freezing – Forbes Advisor

For most of the country, winter brings plummeting temperatures. As the leaves begin to fall, the countdown to the first snow begins, and homeowners begin winterizing their houses.

Freezing and bursting pipes are a common and expensive frustration to many people. During cold weather, ruptured pipes are one of the most common causes of property damage, and the resulting water damage can easily cost $5,000 or more to repair.

But there are steps you can take to prevent ice blockages and freezing pipes as well as protect your water systems. Although keeping your pipes warm during the winter may raise your heating bill a little, the temporary inconvenience is well-worth avoiding the frustration of a burst water line.

How Do Pipes Freeze?

As temperatures drop, water begins to freeze, and water pipes are particularly vulnerable to freezing. But a frozen pipe is more than an inconvenience. Water pipes that freeze are at risk of rupturing, leading to serious leaks and flooding.

When water freezes, it expands. The expanding tendency explains why you have to be careful with what you put in a freezer — some objects, such as soda cans, will explode if left in a freezing environment for too long. The same principle applies to water pipes. If the water inside freezes, it expands, putting the whole system at risk of rupture. However, the pipe rarely bursts where ice has formed — instead, freezing portions of the pipe force pressure “downstream,” between the faucet and the ice blockage. This is where the pipe bursts — usually, in places without any ice at all.

Wind chill plays a significant role in freezing pipes, too. If unheated spaces have holes, cracks or openings that allow cold, outside air to blow in, the cooling effect often accelerates ice formation. Even small openings can allow a dangerous amount of cold air into a structure, like the small holes that let telephone, cable, internet or television lines enter a room.

It’s not just northern regions that experience frozen pipes, either. Water systems in southern climates are at an even higher risk of frozen or ruptured pipes — often, in warm climates, homes aren’t designed with freezing temperatures in mind, and homeowners aren’t familiar with winterizing techniques. When a cold snap occurs, many warm-weather structures are unprepared, leading to ice blockages, burst pipes and flooded homes.

Pipes located in unheated interior spaces are especially prone to ice blockage, including garages, attics and basements — in fact, up to 37 percent of all frozen pipe failures occur in basements. Even pipe systems that thread through cabinets or exterior walls can freeze under the right conditions.

The Minimum Temperature to Keep Pipes From Freezing

As a general rule, the “temperature alert threshold” for freezing pipes is about 20 degrees Fahrenheit. This temperature was determined by researchers at the Building Research Council at the University of Illinois, who determined that uninsulated water pipes began freezing when the temperatures outside dropped to 20 degrees or below.

However, this is not a hard-set rule. Depending on their exposure to wind and the elements, pipes can freeze when temperatures are higher than 20 degrees. In interior spaces, if pipes are near cracks or openings that let in cold air, they may develop ice blockages even if they are in a heated space.

To keep your pipes from freezing and bursting, make sure they are not exposed to temperatures approaching the alert threshold of 20 degrees.

What to Do If Your Pipes Freeze

How to Keep Water Pipes From Freezing | Ranch & Farm Properties

If your pipes are frozen, you can take steps to reduce potential damage and help melt the ice blockages — but not every cold snap will mean frozen and blocked pipes. Look for these signs to check if your water system is truly frozen:

  • Frosty pipes: If a section of your piping system is exposed, check to see if any frost has developed on the surface. If it has, there is a good chance your pipe is frozen.
  • Unusual smells: Strange and odorous smells coming up from a drain or faucet could indicate a frozen pipe. If your pipes are blocked by ice, the smells have nowhere to escape except back in the direction of your home.
  • No water: One of the most obvious signs that a pipe has frozen is a lack of running water. If you turn on a faucet and nothing or only a small trickle of water comes out, this probably indicates that the pipe has an ice block.

Once you’ve determined your pipes have frozen, you can take steps to thaw them out. However, take care when trying to unfreeze any pipes — if one of them has burst, thawing them out could cause a flood. For broken pipes, the best course of action is to turn off your water at the main shutoff valve and consult with an experienced plumber. They can resolve the problem before spring temperatures unfreeze the pipes and flood your home.

If your pipes aren’t ruptured, you can take the following steps to unfreeze them and restore running water to your home:

  1. First, turn on the faucet. As the ice plug in your pipe begins to melt, you want the water to be able to flow through the pipe. The running water will help melt the rest of the ice.
  2. Apply heat to the frozen portion of the pipe. If you can access the portion of pipe that has ice, you can begin thawing it by directly applying heat. Wrap an electric heating pad around the section of pipe, or use a portable space heater or an electric hair dryer.
  3. Keep applying heat until the full water pressure is restored. Check all other faucets in your home to see if any other pipes show signs of freezing — if one pipe has frozen, it’s likely that others have as well.

If you aren’t able to locate the frozen section of pipe, call a licensed plumber to help.