Water pipes that silently serve your home day in and day out can become raging geysers when windy, sub-zero temperatures find their way into the wall and floor cavities shared by your home’s plumbing system. As water is cooled, it expands. Unfortunately, the pipes carry it – do not. As a result, these plumbing pipes literally explode, ripping wide-open and allowing an endless supply of water to drench every element of your home in its path. Making matters worse, pipe bursts usually happen overnight turning sweet dreams into frozen pipe nightmares, or worse, they can even burst when you’re away from home!
Repair costs can range from hundreds to fix the pipe, up to tens of thousands to repair the ensuing water damage. Fortunately, with a little planning, you can protect yourself from the ensuing cold-water drenching and damage. Here’s where to begin.
Open cabinet doors
On very cold nights open the doors to any under kitchen or bath sink cabinets that are located on outside walls, allowing those area to warm from the home’s heating system. This can prevent the inside of the cabinet from becoming a freezer that can lead to frozen water lines.
Turn off outside faucets
This first tip may seem like a no-brainer but it’s surprising how often its overlooked until a burst reminds a forgetful homeowner! Most outside faucets have a shut-off valve called the hose bib, usually located inside the home, crawlspace or basement within a foot or two of the faucets location. Turn the valve off, then open the exterior faucet and leave it open all winter long. That way if the valve leaks slowly as some do, any water that accumulates will drain out. By the way, if you are locating these valves for the first time, make sure to add a tag to them so they can be easily found in the future.
Likewise, be sure to drain any in-ground sprinkler systems. This is best done by a sprinkler company with a high powered air compressor strong enough to purge all of the water out of the lines.
Insulate all exposed water pipes
Insulate all water and heating lines located in unheated crawl spaces, attics, and basements. You can use insulating foam tubes, fiberglass tubes and/or fiberglass pipe wrap. Be sure that pipe elbows are carefully wrapped as well, since these tend to be the hardest parts to get covered. If you notice that the same pipe freezes all the time, then you might want to consider having that pipe re-run through a warmer section of the house.
We took this approach to stop a persistent frozen plumbing pipe problem in the kitchen of our 1886 home. The sink supply lines ran up an exterior wall and through a crawl space that were both very difficult to reach. The solution was to abandon those pipes and re-run new supply lines made of PEX, a virtually leak-proof plastic pipe that is also very flexible, and hence much easier to instal through enclosed walls and tight spaces.
TIP: Which will burst first? Hot water pipe or cold water pipe?
While you’d think cold water pipes would freeze and burst before hot water pipes, the answer is just the opposite. Here’s why: as hot water passes through the water heater, air bubble entrained in the water are released. When water freezes, these air bubbles create a bit of a cushion effect and can take displaces some of the pressure caused by the expanding water. With hot water, there are no air bubbles and hence no cushion. As a result, all that expanding ice presses outward and rips the pipe open faster than if it were a cold water pipe!
Seal drafts in walls, floors and around pipe openings
Super-cold wind-driven air causes many frozen pipe problems as those drafts can freeze uninsulated pipes in a matter of a few hours. Finding and identifying those drafts in areas like exterior walls, crawlspaces and basements, can prevent frozen pipes. Consider using expanding foam sealant like to seal odd shaped spaces, and add batt insulation to the box joists along the interior perimeter of your crawlspace or basement.
If your home is on a crawlspace, close or cover foundation vents. Cut blocks of foam-board insulation to fit the vent openings, and slide them into the vents. Don’t forget to open the vents again in spring; necessary to prevent excessive moisture from forming
Also, it’s worth noting that drain and vent lines can also freeze. On very cold nights, run some hot water down drains that may be located on outside walls of your home.
Keep heat on, even if you’re not home
Keep all your heating zones above 55 degrees all winter long to prevent frozen pipes. Shutting off or lowering unused heating zones can cause water and heating lines to freeze in walls and ceilings of the unused areas, as well as frozen pipes. On super-cold nights, raise the temperature a few degrees higher than normal.
Also, even if you are winterizing your vacation home, keeping some heat on prevents condensation and mold from forming, as well as slows the swelling of doors and other wood parts of the house. You are better off spending a little extra on energy to prevent the pipes from freezing than paying even more for repairs!
How to thaw a frozen pipe
If you are caught off guard by a frozen pipe, you may have some time to thaw it before it breaks. Plumbing pipe heat cables, commonly referred to as “heat tape”, works well as a DIY solution for this, but only if it is used safely. Heating tape is an electric appliance in the form of a long strip. You attach it to the plumbing pipe, plug it in and the strip gets hot, and hopefully warms and thaws the pipe. Just remember to turn off the water line first, in case a break formed but the water was too frozen to leak.
Plumbing pipe heating cables are pretty effective in most cases, however, I want to caution that there’s one common and potentially dangerous use I’ve seen countless time in my experience as a former professional home inspector. That is to place heat tape under the pipe insulation. This is a huge fire threat as the amount of heat generated by the tape appliance is not designed to be contained by insulation. I have seen heat tape actually burn when it was applied like this by an unwitting homeowner. This is a severe fire danger, so make sure you carefully follow the heat tape manufacturers instructions.
Aside from covering the tape with insulation, another common mistake is overlapping the tape, or essentially wrapping it around itself. The tape should always be attached parallel to the pipe, with the thermostat touching the pipe, and secured every few inches with electrical tape.
Also, if you decide to go with heat tape, buy a new one from a reputable source. The safety standards continue to improve and many old heat tape products are simply out of date and unsafe.
If the freeze is beyond what can be accomplished by heat tape, a plumbers are equipped with pipe thawing machine that can handle bigger jobs.
How to monitor for a major pipe leak, even when you are not home
Smart home technology has made it easier to monitor many things in our home and water usage including that which would signal a major pipe break is certainly among its capability. The Streamlabs Smart Home Water Monitor is a new level of protection from water damage, including a major pipe burst. The smart home device helps you detect leaks in real time, learn about your usage and water habits, and find ways to use water more efficiently—all in an easy-to-use app. The installation requires no plumbing work – it’s simple to install and connects directly to your home Wi-Fi, and can alert you at the first sign of major water usage, like a frozen and busted pipe!
Frozen pipes and insurance
Homeowners insurance policies usually cover leaks not caused by deferred maintenance and neglect. Check your policy or contact your insurance professional to determine coverage for a “sudden dispersals of water,” which is insurance speak for a busted pipe!
Leave the water trickling
Finally, if you haven’t taken any of these steps and are worried about one very cold spell, it OK to leave water trickling in a faucet or two and that MAY stop the pipe from freezing and bursting. Sure, it’ll waste water but its a small price to pay for a quick preventative step.
Bottom line, just a few simple steps can keep your water flowing like it should all winter long. Frost-proofing your exterior water faucets and water pipes in your home now can help prevent major damage should a pipe freeze and break in cold weather.