How to Stop Pipes from Freezing

How to Fix Frozen Pipes or Prevent Them Before They Happen

How to Stop Pipes from Freezing

Reading Time: 5 minutes

You’ve acquired your dream homestead. But do you know how to stop pipes from freezing and keep your dream from becoming a winter nightmare?

Freezing pipes are rarely a concern until it really matters. Your worries might be drought, insects devouring your gardens, or predators within your chicken coop. Perhaps your emergency essentials provide for summer storms or fires. But during the winter, knowing how to stop pipes from freezing can save you from catastrophe.

The painful truth is that even the strongest material can break or burst. Water expands slightly at just below 40°F. When it freezes at 32°F, it expands by 9%. This simple but powerful force of nature causes potholes in roads and fissures in rocks. Full pipes have no room for swelling. Plastic, rubber, and lead pipes burst; no material is safe. If the pipes break within a basement or foundation, houses can flood. Off-grid water systems are damaged or destroyed. If pipes break within a home, insurance companies may cancel coverage and homeowners may be unable to get reinsured.

But the problem can be prevented with a little planning ahead and work.

How to Stop Pipes from Freezing

The first sign that pipes might freeze occurs every year. Winter happens whether you’re prepared or not. Do a walk-through of your home, especially during the first year in a new house. Look for drafts, unheated spaces, or bare pipes. Caulk cracks or gaps which allow cold air to flow over plumbing. Identify where the water enters the house; if it comes up near the center, your pipes are probably fine unless temperatures drop to arctic numbers. Pipes running along exterior walls are especially vulnerable. With enough notice, contractors can relocate pipes to warmer areas.

When temperatures drop close to freezing, drain water from outdoor systems, including pipes and sprinkler lines. If you are recycling water at home and do not have a diverter which allows waste water to once again enter sewer pipes, completely flush out the system. Reservoirs such as rain barrels must have enough space to allow for expansion.

Do not add anything to your water to keep it from freezing. Antifreeze is harmful to humans, animals, and landscaping. It’s better to let your water systems rest for the season.

Disconnect all hoses from faucets and hose bibbs at the first indication of a frost. Water remaining in hoses can freeze up the length of the hose and enter houses, cracking the pipes. Cover the hose bibbs with commercial insulators or wrap faucets with strips of old sheets or blankets. Wrap cloth in plastic to keep it from getting wet. And if your newer hose bibb is “frost protected,” don’t assume that means you can keep the hose attached. It means the bibb isn’t as vulnerable to freezing after the hose is disconnected.

Wrap any pipes located in unheated areas, such as irrigation pipes at the house’s exterior or where plumbing enters the structure. Purchase foam insulators and secure with weatherproof tape. Or wrap with several layers of old blankets. Cover any outside pipes with plastic, such as garbage bags, to protect it from rain or snow.

When the weather turns frigid, pipes within houses become vulnerable. Any supply lines which are not close to heaters may freeze without intervention. While insulation may be enough for some pipes, others may require electric “heat cables,” which wrap around the metal and provide enough warmth to keep water flowing.

Opening cabinet doors allows warm air to circulate around the plumbing. This is especially necessary in bathrooms located toward the outer edges of a house. Small space heaters, placed inside bathrooms or kitchens, also help. Never leave heaters unattended. Keep thermostats at the same temperature, night to day. Allowing the house to cool off at night may save electricity but it puts you at risk for a costly repair bill. If you are leaving home during the winter, do not set thermostats lower than 55 degrees. Turn off your water system if you plan to be gone longer than a week.

When weather is really cold, allow indoor faucets to run at a lukewarm trickle. This keeps water moving so it does not freeze. Usually only one faucet is necessary, if it is the one furthest from where the pipes enter the house, because it keeps water moving through the entire system.

Photo by Shelley DeDauw.

How to Fix Frozen Pipes

A sure indication of frozen pipes is water which refuses to flow. If you turn a faucet on full-strength and only a trickle comes out, plumbing is probably frozen where the water enters the house.

First of all, put away that blowtorch. Do not use open flames to thaw pipes.

Keep the faucet on. Once ice starts to melt, keeping the pathway open can use the running water to melt more ice. Apply gentle warmth, such as an electric heating pad wrapped around pipes, a hair dryer, or a portable space heater set in front of a cupboard. Thaw first at the point closest to the faucet. If the faucet has been left open, you will hear when water flows again. Keep the heat on until full pressure is restored.

Check other faucets within the house. If it’s cold enough to freeze one, others might be frozen as well. Also check for leaks, in case the water expansion caused cracking.

If the frozen pipes are inaccessible, or if efforts do not thaw them, call a licensed plumber. Also call a professional if frozen pipes are next to a gas line, since heating the pipes could create additional hazards.

Remember that pipes which have frozen once may be weakened. Plumbers recommend that those pipes be replaced before the next cold season. Another freeze could burst them.

Preventing Catastrophe

Experienced plumbers in cold climates report that hot water pipes burst more often than cold pipes. This is because the cold system includes the toilet, which functions as a pressure-relief device. Water pressure rises and the ball cock allows a trickle to leak out of the tank. Hot water pipes don’t have any kind of device to leak pressure.

Often, the pipe freezes and bursts but water doesn’t immediately flow. After the ice thaws, the water pressure can surpass 3000psi, causing extensive damage. Shutting off the water immediately after pipes break can prevent flooding. Do not use electrical equipment to thaw pipes if any water is leaking.

If temperatures plummeted while you were on vacation and you returned to water and ice in your basement, immediately shut off the water at the main valve. If electrical cords are submerged, shut off power as well. Call plumbers immediately. If the damage is too extensive, relocate until pipes are fixed and heat can be restored.

Sometimes the broken pipe causes extensive damage. After flushing out the system until plumbing can be repaired, first salvage valuable items. Many treasures can be saved if they are recovered within 48 hours of flooding. Collect the water and eliminate it, whether with buckets or shop vacuums. Call insurance companies, which will advise you on starting claims or scheduling repairs. Record all damage. You may need it for the insurance claim. Get the leak fixed, remembering to replace any plumbing which may not have broken but which may be weakened because of water pressure or expansion.

Knowing how to stop pipes from freezing can avoid many problems. But if pipes do burst, prevent and repair damage as soon as possible so you can return to your warm and dry home.

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