How to Prevent Frozen Pipes

With winter really being on it’s way now, it’s important to begin preparing for the many changes the season will bring to day to day life.

The arrival of this season means longer drive times on slick roads, starting your car earlier to warm up and of course keeping those hilarious tennis-racket looking snowshoes handy for the massive drifts.

It also means the pipes in your house and susceptible to freezing which can mean bursting as well. This household danger is generally avoidable if you follow a few basic steps to ensure that indoor plumbing is remaining heated and outdoor fixtures are not left to freeze.

Following these proactive steps could, very well, mean the difference between having your household plumbing survive the winter and an incident which causes inestimable damage to your house and belongings.

Here is how to prevent frozen pipes!

Insulate your plumbing

Like anything else in your house, the best way to ensure the temperature of your pipes and water flow systems are regulated during extreme temperatures is to insulate them. A trip to the hardware store will reveal just how many options there are for piping insulation.

Among the most popular are:

  • Polyethylene – A foam type plastic that is extremely insulated. These insulators are usually sold by the length and fit around your pipe. They can then be zip-tied or taped.
  • Rubber – Also usually sold by the length, rubber piping insulation is made to wrap around piping and provide snug insulation.

Both of these options are available online and at most hardware stores. They will both help to ensure your pipes are kept safe from winter temperatures.

Make sure outside faucets are insulated

One of the lesser known sources of frustration to the DIY home plumber can be the outside faucets. They are not frustrating until the thermometer dial dips below zero and you realize you forgot to winterize them.

The best way to winterize outdoor faucets is to

  1. Shut off water leading outdoors.
  2. Disconnect your garden hose.
  3. Put an insulation cap on the garden hose bib (or outdoor faucet).

After you’ve disconnected the indoor shut-off valve for the water, run the faucet outside to get rid of any water that may be lingering in the pipes yet. This will prevent any remaining water from freezing and serving as a bursting hazard for your internal plumbing.

Seal crawl space vents

Those vents beneath your crawl spaces can also be hazardous to the internal, plumbing-friendly temperature of your house (always above 55 degrees fahrenheit).

Vent covers are available for purchase from your local hardware store, but they can also be fashioned yourself by cutting pieces of cardboard. Whatever you do, make sure those crawl space vents are sealed!

Inspect your water shutoff valve

The water shut-off valve is the most important control within your home plumbing infrastructure. What many people don’t realize is that frozen pipes, in and of themselves, are not usually what causes burst plumbing.

When water that is flowing through a pipe runs into a build-up of ice due to freezing, that water (if it’s at a fast speed or not warm enough to melt the ice) can pressurize to the point of blowing through pipe seals or weak areas within the plumbing.

Knowing that your home water shut-off valve works can be crucial in the event of a pipe freezing to prevent damage to your plumbing or surrounding household material.

(If you’re reading this on February 11th and it’s 15 degrees below zero, please only open your meter if it is an emergency and you need to shut off the household water. Exposure to extreme cold can damage your water meter).

Which reminds me…

Okay, let’s say you’re not really the proactive type. You’re the person who stops on the way home to pick up an anniversary gift for your spouse after he or she reminded you it was the date on your lunch break.

Maybe you’re the person who excuses yourself from the Christmas party to go to the bathroom and then runs out to your car, drives down the road to the 7-11 and picks up an Applebee’s gift card and a cell phone charger for your secret santa.

There are some things you should always make sure to do and be aware of once the cold hits:

1. Heat outside wall plumbing

Make sure that any rooms with outside wall plumbing are kept well heated (above 60 degrees fahrenheit). This will keep those pipes that are on the outside of the house from freezing and prevent massive damage to those outside walls and household fixtures.

Also, any plumbing that is behind cabinet doors can be afforded extra heat by keeping the cabinets open to the heated room during especially cold spells.

Bathroom and kitchen sinks can be some of the biggest liabilities for frozen pipes if proper care isn’t paid to their heating. Rooms that are naturally colder than others (above garage spaces, attics or drafty poorly-insulated spaces) can be kept safe from freezing pipes with a space heater.

2. Trickle by trickle

To make sure water keeps moving in especially cold temperature drops, turn every faucet on to run a thin trickle of warm water.

It may seem wasteful, but keeping warm water, any water for that matter, moving through your pipes can be just the thing they need to avoid the frozen buildup of immobile pipe water.

Ultimately, a burst pipe is going to be more wasteful, as it will mean a higher volume of water being emptied. Except instead of flowing into the drain, it will be soaking your household effects, floors and woodwork. No thank you!

So I uhh…might already have a little frozen pipe problem going on…

Okay, so you’re reading this article a little bit later than that even. Maybe eerie things are happening in your plumbing that make you think, “Hey maybe my pipes are already frozen.”

If any of the following is going on, you may be correct

  • Frost accumulation on the outside of visible plumbing
  • It’s cold…around or below 32 degrees fahrenheit cold (or as we call it in Wisconsin -a pleasant winter day).
  • Water has stopped flowing

If you are in any of these unfortunate situations, it is very possible your pipes are frozen.

What should you do?

I don’t want this to be too alarmist, but you should panic.

Not the unhelpful running around in circles, screaming panic, but the snapping into action and getting done what needs to be done panic.

You will need to thaw the pipe as soon as possible. This can either be done by yourself (if you can locate the source of the freeze), or you can call a plumber to do this for you.

The DIY option

So you’ve found the frozen pipe, you are staring deeply into this weak link in the chain of your household’s running. “Come on pipe, you had one job,” You may be thinking. “Don’t get frozen.”

Stop staring at it, we’ve got work to do!

The first thing you will want to do is open the faucet. Open both the cold and hot dials to relieve some of the pressure currently being exerted on the pipe.

When you actually begin the thawing process, you will want to start as close to the faucet as possible and work your way away from the fixture. This will also reduce the pressure on the ice blockage and prevent freshly melted water from adding to the hazard.

What should I use?

Well, not an open flame.

Instead, a hair dryer is recommended first and foremost. What’s that? You don’t have a hair dryer…well we’ve got just the thing.

You can also use heat lamp to thaw the pipes. A portable heater like a space heater would work in this situation as well with the flow of warm air being applied directly to the surface of the frozen pipe.

Finally, if you don’t have anything like that, you can use a warm towel. Although running water from a second faucet to warm up a towel may contribute pressure to the frozen blockage and is only recommended if you do not have other alternatives.

So there you go, frozen pipes can really be a drag. If you know how to prepare for them, however, you can rest in relative peace through even the coldest days.

If you know how to prepare for them, but didn’t, after reading this article you hopefully have an idea of how to go about thawing them.

And remember, you can always call your friendly neighborhood plumber for assistance.

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