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Frozen Pipes: How to Prevent (and Fix) This Common Winter Problem

Photo: istockphoto.com

The big freeze has many homeowners scrambling for insulation and heaters, but some of the most important areas to look at in the home during the winterizing process are the plumbing pipes. When it comes to serious winter threats to your home, frozen pipes pose one of the most dangerous and costly problems.

Water expands when it freezes, putting significant pressure on the pipes until they can no longer hold the ice. If you turn on a faucet and only get a trickle of water, you have a chance of identifying frozen pipes early enough to thaw them. However, if you’re out of town for the weekend and miss the warning signs, the result can range from a hairline crack to something that runs the length of the pipe.

Types of metal or plastic pipes most likely to freeze (unsurprisingly) include outdoor bibs, swimming pool supply lines, sprinkler lines, but indoor plumbing isn’t necessarily safer. Plumbing in unheated areas — basements, crawl spaces, attics, garages, exterior walls, or even kitchen cabinets — isn’t well protected from freezing temperatures, and these pipes can cause the biggest headaches. Frozen pipes that have cracked not only need to be replaced, but if they burst inside, they can also cause serious water damage to that part of the house within hours of the thaw. Untreated leaks in cabinets, walls, floors, etc. can cost homeowners thousands of dollars to clean and repair, and even open the door to mold and mildew growth.

Although the problem is most common in the Northeast and Midwest, frozen pipes can occur in all parts of the country. If you’re at risk, check out this checklist to help prevent this hazard from hitting your home.

How to Prevent Frozen Pipes

The biggest source of seasonal damage can be completely avoided if you follow these six steps.

STEP 1: Know your plumbing

Prepare for a potential disaster by first identifying the location of your plumbing pipes and locating the water shutoff valves. Always make sure you have easy access to the main water stop in case of an emergency. (Location may vary depending on the age of your home, but check inside a garage, basement, or utility room first, and possibly underground in your yard. ) Call a professional to have your heating and plumbing serviced every year too, so you’re aware of small issues and can fix them before they turn into bigger problems.

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How to prevent frozen pipes in winter

Photo: istockphoto.com

STEP 2: Drain and open during fall

All exterior water lines to swimming pools and sprinkler systems should be completely drained in the fall so that no moisture is left inside to expand in freezing weather. (Not sure where to start? Learn how to winterize your sprinkler system.) Also, remove and drain hoses and close outside faucet valves.

It goes without saying, but never put antifreeze in outdoor water pipes! Despite the promising sound of the name, this product will not prevent frozen pipes; moreover, it is harmful to children, pets, wildlife and landscaping.

STEP 3: Isolate, isolate, isolate

Water pipes located in unheated exterior walls, basements, crawl spaces, or garages should be well insulated with sleeve-type pipe insulation to help keep temperatures above 32 degrees Fahrenheit and prevent freezing. It will also help your pipes – not to mention your wallet in general – if you ensure that all rooms are properly insulated and that gaps in leaky windows and doors are sealed off to prevent violent drafts.

STEP 4: Run the smallest piece of water
If not for the whole winter season, you might consider turning on a few taps in the coldest areas of the house (where the pipes would most likely freeze), just enough to let a trickle of water flow out. . By keeping faucets open, the flowing water helps prevent pipes from freezing.

STEP 5: Heat exposure

The key is to make sure your pipes stay warm enough throughout the winter. This means keeping cold air out or bringing warm air to your cold pipes. To this end, be careful not to shut off interior heat pipes in that particular area of ​​the house. Plumbing that runs along an exterior wall through a sink cabinet in the kitchen or the vanity in the bathroom, for example, will run cooler if you keep the cabinet doors closed. Leave them slightly ajar, however, and they will warm up with the rest of the room while your HVAC system is running. Plugging in radiators to run at low temperatures in problem areas doesn’t hurt during the colder times of the year either.

Whatever you do, never turn the heat off completely on days or nights that drop below freezing, even if you’re out of town. Shutting down your HVAC completely could put your pipes at risk of freezing or even bursting, and your vacation ending less fun.

STEP 6: Be smart with your resources

A variety of other products also help prevent frozen pipes in the first place. Consider a freeze alarm: For less than $100, you can buy one at your home improvement center and set it to alert your phone when the indoor temperature drops below 45 degrees Fahrenheit so you can compensate with additional heat in areas at high risk of frozen pipes. Alternatively, a hot water circulation pump will monitor the temperature of your pipes and automatically circulate hot water through the hot and cold water lines whenever temperatures drop below a predetermined reference point without ask the owner to solve a problem.

How to deal with frozen pipes

Photo: istockphoto.com

How to Thaw Frozen Pipes

Fortunately, dealing with frozen pipes quickly can greatly minimize water damage in the home.

STEP 1: Find the frozen pipe

First turn on all the faucets in your home to see which one, if any, is producing only a trickle of water – this is a sign of a frozen pipe – this is a clear sign of a frozen pipe somewhere between the faucet and the water source. Starting with the plumbing closest to the faucet, follow the line away from it and feel every few feet to find the coldest pipes, which will likely hold the icy blockage.

And remember: if one pipe has frozen, it means others may be susceptible as well. To be sure, check all the faucets in your home.

STEP 2: Limit the amount of water to deplete

Turn off the water supply to the location of the frozen pipes (or, if it’s easier, to the whole house) by turning it clockwise to its “off” position. When the frozen blockage finally thaws, it can leak any extra liquid saved behind it and cause a surprise leak, so grab a bucket, some towels, and maybe a mop to prepare for any icy water that squirts out.

RELATED: 10 Emergencies Every Homeowner Should Know How To Handle

STEP 3: Open the taps

Drain any remaining water in the house by turning on every faucet in every sink, shower, and tub and flushing every toilet once.

STEP 4: Heat things up

Apply heat to frozen sections of pipe using an electric heating pad, hair dryer, or portable heater until water pressure is restored. Warm the edge of the area closest to the nearest plumbing outlet, such as in the kitchen or bathroom, so that steam or water can easily escape. A space heater (or, if you have zone heating, a setting on the nearest thermostat) might also do the trick to focus the heat where it’s needed. Whatever you do, never use a torch, propane heater, or other open flames.

STEP 5: Slowly restore water elsewhere

When you turn water back on throughout the house through the main water supply valve, be on the lookout for leaks. If you spot any, you will need to shut off the water supply again and call a plumber to make the repairs as soon as possible. Close the valves and faucets left open in step 1.

RELATED: 12 Things Your Plumber Wish You Knew

If your frozen pipes seem completely thawed, once again focus your energy on the preventive measures you can take yourself to avoid such a serious situation in the future.

Some jobs are best left to the pros

Get free, no-obligation estimates from licensed plumbers near you.

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