How To Prevent Pipes From Freezing & Causing Damage
When the temperatures cool down and the winter season is upon us, frozen pipes can equate to big trouble for homeowners and business owners. Pipes can freeze and burst, swell, and crack, leaving owners with costly flood or water damage. Any pipe exposed to temperatures below 20°F for several hours runs the risk of freezing.
When temperatures drop below freezing during winter months, exposed pipes become at risk of bursting – resulting in extensive water damage and costly repairs. Contributing factors that cause burst pipes in winter months are water molecule expansion due to freezing temperatures and pressure build up.
Frozen pipes are more common than you might think. In fact, an average of over 250,000 homes each year will suffer damage from frozen and burst pipes. The damage is estimated to be in the $400-500 million each year. Water damage claims are the second largest frequent insurance claim and most water damage claims this time of year are caused by frozen pipe bursts. As a homeowner or business owner, it is important that you know how to prevent pipes from freezing.
Why Do Pipes Freeze?
While freezing temperatures are the main cause of burst pipes, other underlying factors can also contribute to pipe cracks and damage. When rust and corrosion build up inside pipes, for instance, the pipe material can degrade and become more vulnerable to bursting. Trees located near your pipes can also send out their roots to invade pipes, leading to cracks and leaks. Significant soil movement caused by construction, temperature changes or plumbing system repairs can damage water pipes, as can high water pressure and serious clogs that make their way deep within the system.
What Causes Frozen Pipes To Burst?
Water is a very unique and interesting liquid. When water is in its liquid form, its molecules are in constant motion allowing very little space in between them. In other words, the molecules are huddled together. As temperatures drop below freezing, these molecules begin to change drastically. The molecule bonds become stronger, therefore restricting movement and creating a more defined structure. No longer are the molecules in constant motion, but instead they develop into crystalline structures and align in a hexagon shape formation. When positioning into their new hexagon formation, the molecules require more space in between them. What does this mean for your pipes? Increased pressure.
As the water within your pipes slowly freezes, the pressure will begin to increase. Cold water will continue to expand into all available areas within the pipe, and when there is no more space… it will gravitate towards the faucet. Eventually, the water will have no other place to go and the pipe will be at full capacity. If the pressure is allowed to build and build, the pipes will no longer be able to contain the expanded frozen water within it. At this point the pipe will break, crack and burst.
Prevent Your Pipes From Freezing
Before Winter: Ways to Prepare Your Water Pipes
Being proactive, instead of reactive, is the key when identifying how to keep pipes from freezing. The best way to protect pipes from freezing is to understand the importance of preparations before the onset of cold weather.
Here are a few ways on how to prevent frozen pipes and how to avoid frozen pipes:
- Draining swimming pools
By draining water from pipes, filters and pumps, the risk of damage from freezing is eliminated. Water left in the pool helps protect the liner and the structure from cold weather damage. A properly winterized pool won’t harbor algae and bacteria that can be difficult to deal with next year.
- Sprinkler lines
By winterizing your irrigation system, you can avoid pipe freezes and prevent frozen pipes. Freezing water in the irrigation system will break water pipes, fittings, valves, sprinklers, pumps, and other system components.
- Handling outdoor hoses
It is safe to leave a hose outdoors all winter, provided it has been drained of its water. Ideally, though, you should bring your hose inside and store it somewhere safe and dry. The fluctuating temperatures, plus exposure to moisture and sun, can damage the hose even if it’s disconnected from water.
- Insulating vulnerable zones and pipes
Insulate exposed pipes. Insulating your pipes adds an extra layer of protection from freezing temperatures. There are several materials you can use to insulate your pipes, such as foam and heat tape. You can usually find these materials at your local home improvement store.
- Inspect pipes for any existing damage before it gets cold
You should routinely inspect your water pipes for any signs of damage, especially before the colder months. Damaged pipes should be repaired or replaced immediately. Pipes that are compromised with cracks are more likely to burst at the slightest instance of water expanding.
- Consider using heat tape or heat cables in vulnerable areas
Many people install heat cables (or heat tape) on their roof to protect their homes or businesses in the winter months. Heat cables melt channels through already-formed ice dams to minimize ice buildup. Ideally, they can help provide a path for snowmelt to drain off your roof rather than pooling behind the dam. This may help prevent water infiltration into your roof deck and property.
During Winter: Reduce Risk of Water Freezing
If you took the time to prepare your home or business property for winter, your work is not finished. During the winter months, you need to stay aware of protecting and monitoring your pipes during the entire season. Being mindful to continuously reduce the risk of water freezing can help keep your structure safe throughout the cold months.
- Garage door best practices and the role of indoor warmth.
Turning your garage into a warm and toasty space involves a few steps, all of which should be completed before winter arrives. High-quality insulated garage doors will save you money in the long run. Adding weather-stripping to your garage door helps keep out cold air, other forms of weather, and even dirt.
- The ‘trickle method’ and its benefits.
Allow faucets to drip. Letting your faucet drip promotes water movement. Moving water is less likely to freeze, even if it’s a trickle, it can help prevent your pipes from bursting.
- Consistent thermostat settings and advice for homeowners leaving during cold spells.
Open sink cabinets. Opening sink cabinets in your kitchen and bathrooms allows warm indoor air to surround pipes. The warm air around the pipes can prevent the water from freezing.
During Winter: Preventing Frozen Pipes While Away Or On Vacation
The winter is a very popular time of the year to go on vacation or be away from your home or business – especially with several holidays this time of year. In order to prevent frozen pipes while away or on vacation, there are a few best practices.
- Check the thermostat, set it at no lower than 55 degrees.
Keep the heat on in your home even if you are on vacation or away for an extended time. Frequently pipes freeze and burst while homeowners are away on vacation and have turned off their heat. If you will be gone for an extended length of time, even setting your home’s heat temperatures to 55-degrees will provide enough heat for internal pipes to keep them from freezing in your absence.
- Ask a friend or neighbor to check your house to ensure thermostat and heating function to prevent pipes from freezing.
No one wants to come home to frozen pipes and potential water damage. One easy way to minimize this risk is by asking friends, neighbors, or relatives to periodically stop by your house to make sure the thermostat and other heating functions are working properly.
- Shut off the water supply before you leave.
If you plan to be away from home for several days, shutting off the water can reduce the chances of broken pipes. Shut off water to the house and open all faucets to drain pipes, flush the toilet once to drain the tank, but not the bowl.
Identifying the Most At-Risk Pipes
No matter the strength of a container, expanding water can cause pipes to break. Pipes that freeze most frequently are: Pipes that are exposed to severe cold, like outdoor hose bibs, swimming pool supply lines, and water sprinkler lines.
- Outdoor pipes that are exposed to the elements (hoses, swimming pools, sprinklers)
When you don’t insulate your outdoor pipes, you’re at risk for frozen pipes. Exterior pipes are most susceptible to freezing temperatures because of exposure to the elements.
- Water supply lines and pipes in unheated areas (basements, crawl spaces, attics, cabinets, garages).
Ambient temperature can drop in places you might not notice, such as your attic, and cause damage when they freeze. Check attics, crawl spaces, and outside walls for uninsulated water pipes, especially in unheated areas.
- Pipes that run against an exterior wall with little or no insulation.
Any exposed pipes, especially those that run along walls and outside, should be winterized against the elements.
How To Thaw Frozen Pipes
As the temperatures decrease, the risk of a frozen pipe increases. The good news is that you can unfreeze pipes before they burst, but you have to know how to identify them. Here are a few warning signs of frozen pipes:
- No water or a slow trickle when a faucet is used.
- Whistling and banging coming from pipes, or strange bubbling sounds when you flush a toilet.
- Dampness, puddles, or rings on drywall or ceilings—signs of an urgent issue.
- If the water in a pipe has frozen, sewer odors may not be able to escape. The only place for them to go is into your living spaces – making for an extremely unpleasant situation.
- Expanding ice can put a tremendous amount of pressure on a pipe. As the force increases, the pipe can swell or bulge. Call a plumber immediately as a bulging pipe can burst at any time.
Luckily, not all frozen pipes burst. With that said, even if you don’t have to deal with a frozen pipe burst, the ice can continue to build up inside of the pipe and block water from moving. If you have a frozen pipe, or a pipe that you believe is frozen, it is imperative to take action to thaw frozen pipes.
- Keep the faucet open, how running water helps melt pipes.
As you treat the frozen pipe and the frozen area begins to melt, water will begin to flow through the frozen area. Running water through the pipe will help melt ice in the pipe.
- Apply heat to the pipe using a heating pad, hair dryer, or space heater.
A hair dryer or space heater will need to be directed at the pipe so that the warm air hits the frozen part of the pipe. Be prepared to wait at least 30 to 60 minutes. When the pipe begins to thaw, water will start flowing at a faster rate through the open faucet.
- Apply heat until full water pressure returns.
Don’t stop heating until full water pressure is restored. Even then, it’s a good idea to leave the faucet open for a few minutes after the pipe is thawed. This will give the ice time to completely clear from the line.
- Check for additional frozen pipes and/or call for assistance.
If safe (and possible), you should turn off the water at the main shut-off valve and call a plumber. It then becomes a race against the clock. The success of recovering and restoring your home, and its contents, increases if rapid action is taken. Affected building materials and other items will continue to deteriorate if excess water is not removed. Our experts are specialized in water damage restoration and can provide a rapid response to mitigate your loss, no matter the extent of the damage.
If a pipe bursts in your home, you’ll need to act fast to mitigate additional damage. Shut off your water as quickly as possible. This will help minimize the amount of water that seeps out inside your walls. You may also want to shut off power in the affected area of your home. After you’ve taken these precautionary steps, it’s time to call a plumber and start mopping up any mess that’s been caused. Try to remove as much of the water and lingering moisture as you can to avoid mold and mildew buildup. Depending on the severity of your case, you may also need to bring in other professionals to address damage to your walls, carpet, flooring or ceiling.