Frozen pipes can become a costly, disastrous problem if left alone too long. When it comes to plumbing pipes and freezing outdoor temperatures, the smartest and least expensive path is prevention. By preparing your pipes ahead of time, you can avoid a serious disaster during the winter. If you don’t take any precautions, your pipes could crack and burst. In a worst-case scenario, you could be forced to replace your entire plumbing system. To prevent your pipes from freezing or thaw already-frozen pipes, follow the tips in this guide.
How Do Pipes Freeze?
Water pipes can freeze if they aren’t protected when the outdoor temperature dips below freezing. Especially if you live in a colder climate or experience below-freezing temperatures throughout the year (like in the Midwest or Northeast), ensure you take care of your pipes properly. Here are two common reasons pipes freeze:
- You may have poorly insulated areas throughout your home (like your crawl space, attic, and garage).
- You may have turned the thermostat down too low or turned the heat off completely.
While it may seem cost-effective to shut off your thermostat when leaving your home, it may become a more expensive problem. If you’re planning to leave your home, especially for an extended period of time, it’s important that you maintain the heat in your home so that your pipes don’t freeze.
Why Do Pipes Burst?
Frozen pipes are at risk of bursting due to the pressure in the pipe. When water freezes, it expands and can create a blockage inside the pipe. As this builds up, water can’t flow freely, and pressure builds inside the pipe. When it becomes too much, the pipe can crack and burst. Water will then spill out, which can lead to extensive water damage in your home.
Here are other common reasons pipes burst:
- Corrosion due to rust or imbalances in your water’s pH
- High water pressure
- Contracting due to cold temperatures
How to Prevent Frozen Pipes
In order to prevent frozen pipes in your home, you’ll need to equip your pipes to handle the cold. Look for any exposed pipes in unheated parts of your house—like the basement, in crawl spaces, or near exterior walls. Also check the water pipes in your garage. Wrap pipes in unheated areas with foam insulation or heat tape. It’s also a good idea to seal cracks or holes throughout your home to prevent cold air from entering and making your home colder overall.
Add these best practices to your routine to prevent your pipes from freezing:
- Keep the heat on and set it at or above 55° F.
- Open cabinet doors that conceal plumbing so the warm air can reach your pipes.
- Keep all interior doors open to improve airflow.
- Let a light trickle of water flow from your faucets when the temperatures are extremely low.
- Ask a plumbing and HVAC professional to inspect and service your heating and plumbing systems at least once a year.
- Consider purchasing a “freeze alarm” to alert you if the temperature anywhere inside your home dips below a certain level.
Also check your outdoor plumbing units, like faucets. If you fail to unhook, drain, and safely store your garden hoses during the winter, you risk destroying your hoses and your internal plumbing system. Water that freezes inside an attached hose can cause a blockage, creating pressure on your plumbing system. To avoid this, detach and safely store your hoses every fall, and close the shut-off valve that leads to outdoor faucets. Once this is off, drain any water left inside the spigot. You can also add insulating faucet covers for extra protection.
Check other water supply lines if you have an outdoor pool or sprinkler system. You should drain them in the fall to prepare your yard for winter. Never put antifreeze in outdoor water lines; it won’t prevent freezing and it could harm your family and landscaping.
What Should I Do If I Leave for Vacation?
If you leave your home for the winter, your first instinct may be to shut off the heat. Nobody’s going to be home using it, so it’s a complete waste of money, right? Wrong. Never set the temperature below 55 °F. If you live in a region with a frigid climate, you may need to keep it higher than this to be safe.
Open cabinet doors before you leave home to allow warm air to circulate around pipes under sinks in bathrooms and kitchens. If the outdoor temperature is extremely low, open a faucet slightly to prevent pressure buildup and freezing inside your pipes while you’re away. Another option is to turn off your main water supply before you leave home.
How to Treat Frozen Pipes
Freezing and bursting pipes are not only an inconvenience. They can also cause severe water damage to your home. If your pipes freeze, don't panic. Here's how to treat them before they crack and burst.
1. Locate the Frozen Pipe
You will know a pipe is frozen if (a) only a trickle of water is coming out of the faucet or (b) a sink isn’t draining. Chances are, if one pipe froze in your home, other pipes also did. Be sure to check all areas of your home outfitted with pipes, including
- The kitchen
- All bathrooms
- The laundry room
- The utility room
- The basement
Once you’ve identified the frozen pipes in your home, you can begin to treat them accordingly.
2. Shut Off the Water Supply
Turn off the water supply to your house. After you thaw the frozen pipe, it could release a stream of water that was trapped inside the pipe behind the ice blockage.
3. Open the Faucet
Many online sources encourage homeowners to open both the hot and cold water taps when beginning to thaw frozen pipes. By opening the faucet in the affected area, you will allow water to flow as it melts and avoid putting added pressure on the pipes. This will also help you determine when you have entirely thawed the ice blockage.
4. Thaw the Frozen Area
Regardless of how you choose to thaw the frozen area, you should start applying heat at the faucet and work your way toward the blockage. Doing so will reduce the pressure buildup behind the jam and help prevent the pipe from bursting.
To thaw an exposed pipe, apply heat using any of the following tools:
- Hot towels
- Electrical heating tape
- Heat lamp
- Portable space heater
- Heating pad
If the pipe in question is behind a wall, you have a few options to thaw the blockage:
- Turn up the thermostat in your home.
- Use an infrared lamp.
- Cut a hole in the wall and use the tools listed in the previous section.
Never use a blow torch or any other type of open flame to thaw a frozen pipe. It can cause irreparable damage to your pipes and may cause a fire.
5. Turn the Water Supply Back On
Once your frozen pipe problem is solved, you can restore the water supply to your house. Keep an eye out for unexpected leaks.
What to Do If a Pipe Bursts
If a pipe does indeed burst, the first thing you need to do is shut off your main water line. Each home is different, but you can usually find the main shut-off valve near your water meter. After you’ve stopped the flow of water, place a bucket or other basin under the burst pipe to collect any excess drainage. Contact a professional plumbing company to repair your pipes immediately.
If you'd like to have your plumbing system checked before you leave town this winter or you have a current plumbing problem you need help with, contact Pacific by requesting a repair on our website. If you’re facing a plumbing emergency, you can reach us by calling 1-888-906-4769. For more plumbing and home maintenance tips, subscribe to our blog!