Protect pipes from freezing

When the temperature starts dropping, unprotected pipes can start popping as water freezes and expands. And no one wants that.

The pipes most vulnerable to temperatures below 32 degrees are those not protected by a home’s insulation, in unheated areas such as attics, crawl spaces and outside walls. Holes in outside walls where TV, cable or phone lines enter also allow outside cold air to reach pipes.

Even if a home’s exposed pipes are already wrapped and the voids caulked, it’s common sense to do an annual check, and some preparations must be performed each year. In the spirit of keeping pipes safe, here’s a winterizing checklist.

Pipes can wear sleeves

In unheated areas, protect pipes with insulation. Pre-cut sleeves of foam rubber or fiberglass are convenient.

Caulk gun to protect pipes from freezing

caulk holes and cracks near pipes to solidify insulation from cold

The big squeeze

Use caulk to seal holes and cracks in outside walls and foundations near interior pipes.

Check down under

If your house has a crawl space underneath, close all air vents in foundation walls.

 

Quick Tip

When the freeze is on

Dripping faucet to protect pipes from freezing

When extremely cold temperatures are in the forecast, open kitchen and bathroom cabinet doors so warm air can reach the plumbing. When the temperature dips below 32 degrees, let cold water drip from faucets served by exposed pipes. This becomes crucial during a hard freeze, when temperatures drop to 28 degrees or lower for hours.

Mind the shed

Don’t forget about water lines and faucets that serve unheated outbuildings.

coiled garden hose and protect pipes from freezing

Disconnect and store garden hoses that are easily susceptible to cold and freezing.

Rustle up hoses

Drain and disconnect garden hoses. Not doing so can lead to problems with outside faucets and with the water pressure of interior pipes.

Protect faucets

If possible, close inside valves supplying outdoor faucets. Keep the outside faucets open so any remaining water in the pipes can expand without causing the pipes to rupture. If no inside valve is available, let outside faucets drip during freezing weather.

Getting a house ready for a long winter’s sleep

A house that will be empty and unheated for an extended period during cold weather requires extra special prep:

  • Shut off water at main supply point, and turn off all gas and electricity to boiler and water heater.
  • Drain all water from faucets, pipes and appliances such as water heaters and washers. Refer to each appliance manufacturer’s instructions for guidance on how to do this properly.
  • Flush toilets.
  • Eliminate or dilute water in U- or S-shaped drain traps and toilets by pouring RV-type antifreeze into them.

What if a pipe freezes?

The first sign that a pipe is frozen usually happens when someone turns on a faucet and gets only a trickle of water or nothing at all. At that point, finding and gently thawing the frozen pipe before it can burst becomes crucial.

If the pipe has burst, immediately shut off water at the main or to the damaged portion of the plumbing system.

broken pipe when pipes not protected from freezing

The Michigan State University Extension Service, This Old House online and home repair expert Bob Formisano offer these tips for tracking down a frozen pipe and thawing it.

First, you’ll need to determine how widespread the problem is. Open all the taps on the house. If there’s no flowing water anywhere, pipes may be frozen near the water meter. Check those by observing them for frost and simply by touching them to see if they are very cold.

If water is flowing only to part of the house, the frozen pipe may be in a wall or crawl space. As an intermediate measure, open cabinets in the kitchen and bathroom to allow warm air to flow inside and warm the pipes. Next identify the affected area and track its supply pipe to where it is exposed to cold air, such as in a crawlspace or basement.

After the frozen pipe is located, This Old House suggests, open the affected faucet and all hot water taps in the house. Allow them to run until water begins to flow from the affected faucet, then close the other faucets down to a trickle. Let water run at the affected faucet until full pressure has returned.

hair drier to thaw pipes when they have frozen

Use a hair drier or iron to manually thaw frozen pipes

If the pipe must be manually thawed, experts recommend a gentle heat source such as a hair dryer, iron or infrared heat lamp. Work from the affected faucet back toward the blockage. Never pour boiling water directly on a frozen pipe, and never use a propane torch, which can heat the pipe too quickly and cause it to rupture. Torches also present a significant fire risk when used among studs or joists.

If the frozen pipe is bulging or cracked, shut off the water. Unless you’re exceptionally handy, you’ll need to call a plumber.

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