How to keep your pipes from freezing
Pipes in attics, crawl spaces and outside walls are especially vulnerable to freezing. (Photo courtesy of Angie's List member Bret S. of Pleasant Ridge, Mich.)
Most people are aware that when water freezes, it expands. That’s why your forgotten can of soda in the freezer exploded. When water freezes in a pipe, it will expand in the same way.
If it expands enough, it will burst, water will escape, and serious damage may occur. A 1/8-inch crack in a pipe can spew up to 250 gallons of water in a day. But this is one disaster you can prevent by taking a few simple precautions.
Both plastic and copper pipes are susceptible to freezing. Pipes freeze for a combination of three reasons: a quick drop in temperatures, poor insulation and a thermostat that is set too low.
Water pipes in warmer climates may be more vulnerable to winter cold spells, since the pipes are more likely to be located in unprotected areas outside of the building insulation. Homeowners can be proactive by determining whether they have any plumbing items that need protection, and then ensuring that they provide that protection.
Pipes in attics, crawl spaces and outside walls are all vulnerable to freezing, especially if there are cracks or openings that allow cold outside air to flow across the pipes.
Research at the University of Illinois has shown that wind chill, the same cooling effect of air and wind that causes the human body to lose heat, can play a major role in accelerating ice blockage, and thus, bursting water pipes.
When is it cold enough for pipes to freeze?
Homeowners should be alert to the danger of freezing pipes. Any time temperatures dip to 32 degrees, pipes may freeze, especially when wind chill is a factor.
Tips to avoid frozen pipes
• Know where the water cut-off valve is located in your home. Make sure that every responsible person in the home is aware of its location.
• Remove, drain and carefully store hoses used outdoors.
• Keep garage doors shut if any water lines are located inside.
• Seal all openings where cold air can get at unprotected water pipes. As stated above, it’s especially important to keep cold wind away from pipes.
• Pipes in attics and crawl spaces should be protected with insulation or heat. Pipe insulation is available in fiberglass or foam sleeves. Remember, the more insulation you use, the better protected your pipes will be.
• During freezing weather, leave cabinet doors open under kitchen or bathroom sinks (especially if they are located against an outside wall) to allow warmer room air to circulate around pipes. You can also place a small lamp with an incandescent bulb near the pipes. Be sure to remove anything flammable from the area to prevent fires.
• Let faucets drip slowly to keep water flowing through pipes that are vulnerable to freezing. If the dripping stops, it may mean that ice is blocking the pipe. Keep the faucet open to assist in pressure relief.
• Heating cables and tapes are effective for freeze protection. Follow manufacturer’s directions closely when using these products.
• Exterior pipes and hose bibbs (outdoor faucets) should be drained or enclosed in 2-inch insulation sleeves.
• When weather is very cold, keep thermostats at the same temperature day and night. Lowered temperatures at night may contribute to colder attic temperatures and thus, more vulnerable pipes.
What to do if your pipes freeze
If you turn on your faucets and nothing comes out, the water in your pipes is probably frozen. You may be able to thaw a frozen pipe with the warm air from a hair dryer. Make sure the faucet is open, and never stand in water while operating an electric appliance. Do not use a blowtorch or any open flame to thaw a pipe, to prevent fires.
If your water pipes have already burst, turn off the water at the main shut-off valve in the house. Leave the water faucets turned on. Again, make sure your family members know where the water shut-off valve is and how to operate it. Then call a plumber to help.
Editor's note: This article was originally published in in January of 2011.
Texas Plumbing Diagnostics is highly rated on Angie’s List and a four-time Angie’s List Super Service Award winner. They are members of the Texas Water Quality Association and the Plumbing, Heating and Cooling Contractors of San Antonio.
As of Jan. 9, 2014, this service provider was highly rated on Angie’s List. Ratings are subject to change based on consumer feedback, so check AngiesList.com for the most up-to-date reviews. The views expressed by this author do not necessarily reflect those of Angie’s List.