Why Should You Care About Frozen Pipes?
It’s often easy to let preventive home maintenance go and trust to luck that everything will be all right. But neglecting the measures that can prevent frozen pipes can be a costly mistake.
A frozen pipe often becomes a burst pipe because freezing increases the pressure inside, and a burst pipe can result in thousands of dollars worth of water damage.
Which Pipes Are Most Likely to Become Frozen Pipes?
The good news, to the extent that there is good news, is that you need only worry about water supply pipes, not drainpipes. The former are only about an inch in diameter, hold water, and are pressurized. The latter carry away wastewater, don’t hold water, aren’t pressurized, and are typically made of plastic. These characteristics mean there’s essentially no danger of drainage pipes freezing.
Of the water supply pipes, the ones running through unheated interior spaces like garages, basements, and attics are most likely to freeze and burst. But a homeowner shouldn’t be concerned about them and them only. Pipes that run through exterior walls and cabinets can become frozen pipes, too.
Similarly, it would be an error to assume that if your home isn’t located in an area that sees a lot of cold weather, you don’t need to worry about pipes freezing. Homes situated where the weather is generally warmer can actually be more prone to pipes freezing because the pipes are inadequately insulated or run through unprotected areas or even outdoors. Thus, when the weather does become unusually cold, when it drops to 20°F. or below, they’re quite susceptible to freezing.
How Do You Keep Pipes from Freezing?
There are a number of measures a homeowner can take to prevent frozen pipes. Some may seem like they waste money, but rest assured, if you end up with a burst pipe, you’re virtually certain to spend a lot more We’ve already indicated the first step by implication:
Insulate water supply pipes. Pipe insulation can be surprisingly cheap. It can cost as little as 50 cents per linear foot.
Especially vulnerable pipes like those in attics or garages may need extra insulation, but they aren’t the only ones that might benefit from it. If there’s a problem with pipes freezing anywhere in the home, additional insulation may solve it.
Fiberglas or foam rubber sleeves can help prevent frozen pipes. This can be a cheap way of protecting exposed pipes but gets more expensive if you have to open ceilings, walls, or floors to get at them. Another option is keep pipes warm by adding insulation to ceilings and walls themselves.
It’s important to understand that insulation isn’t a cure-all. It keeps a pipe closer to the temperature of the water inside but doesn’t provide heat. That means you can still end up with frozen pipes if they’re exposed to freezing temperatures for a prolonged period of time.
Let cold water drip from a faucet connected to an exposed pipe. Even a trickle of water running through a pipe helps to prevent freezing and relieves the pressure in the pipe that will actually result in a burst pipe if it freezes anyway.
If the same faucet connects to both cold and hot water pipes, it’s advisable to open both taps slightly or set a single-handle faucet (like those found in many kitchens) to warm.
Keep it warm. Let the thermostat stay on the same temperature day and night, and if you’re going to be gone from your home, set the thermostat no lower than 55° F.
Space heaters are one way of warming an area where you’ve determined there’s a risk of pipes freezing. It’s generally not the best idea to use one in a bathroom, but if you do, don’t use an extension cord and be sure the heater’s plugged in to an outlet with a ground-fault circuit interrupter.
If you have tenants, and they’re going to be away for a while, they may be reluctant to keep the heat on and pay the resulting utility bill. If so, pointing out that a burst pipe is likely to damage their possessions may persuade them.
Keep interior doors open. Cabinets often contain pipes. Keeping cabinet doors open in cold weather allows heat from elsewhere in the house to reach the pipes and warm them. Similarly, keeping other doors open facilitates the flow of heat throughout your home.
Keep garage doors closed, though, to protect water supply lines in the garage and prevent frozen pipes.
Use heating tape. Heating tape is like an electric blanket. It provides heat directly to a pipe to warm it during cold weather. It works well to protect short lengths of pipe that are both prone to freezing and easy to get at. The accessibility makes the tape easy to install and monitor for problems afterward.
There are two kinds of heating tape. One senses when heat is required and switches itself on and off as needed. The other has to be turned on and off manually. Either kind can be dangerous if you fail to follow the manufacturer’s directions and safety precautions.
Seal holes and cracks. Spaces around pipes where they run through walls and floor can let in cold air, which is exactly what you don’t want when trying to prevent frozen pipes. Spray foam insulation or caulk can fill the open spaces. Ideally, for the best possible seal, treat both the interior and exterior of the wall or other surface.
How to Thaw Frozen Pipes
Unfortunately, even if you scrupulously take every precaution listed above, there’s no absolute guarantee that you’ll prevent pipes from freezing. If you turn the tap and only a trickle of water comes out, there’s a good chance the pipe has indeed frozen, in which case, it will have to be thawed out.
The first thing to understand is that you need to be careful. A frozen pipe may already be a burst pipe, and if it is, thawing it can bring water gushing out to flood your home. If you have any doubt about your ability to address a particular problem safely, it’s a wise idea to call a plumber.
If you know you have a burst pipe, turn off the water at the main shutoff valve, which you will usually find at the water meter or where the main line comes into the house, and definitely call a plumber. You’ll also need a plumber if you determine a frozen pipe is inaccessible or you just can’t thaw it for any reason.
That said, to thaw frozen pipes yourself, take the following steps:
Turn on the tap. When you heat the frozen pipe and the ice inside melts, you want the water to flow through. Even very cold water moving through the pipe will make the remaining ice melt more quickly.
Heat the frozen section of pipe. There are a number of ways of doing this safely. You can wrap towels soaked in hot water around the pipe, wrap an electric heating pad around it, warm it with an electric hair dryer, or use a space heater as long as you keep it away from flammable materials.
But don’t use a charcoal stove, a propane or kerosene heater, a blowtorch, or any device that produces an open flame. Too much heat can damage the pipe, and you might even start a fire.
Keep applying the heat until it restores normal water pressure. Then check all the other faucets in the home to make sure they’re working normally. If one pipe froze, others may have as well.