How to Keep Pipes From Freezing and Bursting

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When severe winter weather threatens your home, one of the most important preventative measures you need to become familiar with is how to keep pipes from freezing. Frozen pipes can crack or burst, and the resulting leaks can cost a fortune in repairs. Therefore, the best time to overwinter is before outside temperatures drop below freezing.

To prevent inclement weather from freezing pipes and avoid installation headaches, read the following information on how to keep pipes from freezing in the first place—as well as some helpful tips on how to thaw frozen pipes in an emergency.

What happens if your pipes freeze?

Water expands when it freezes, and this process occurs in your plumbing when temperatures fall below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Expanding ice puts pressure on plastic and metal pipes until they can no longer hold and then fail. Frozen water pipes that have cracks not only need to be replaced, but if they burst indoors, they can cause serious water damage within hours of thawing. Leaks in cabinets, walls, and floors can not only open the door to mold and mildew growth for homeowners, but they can also cost homeowners thousands in cleanup and repairs.

The types of pipes most susceptible to freezing include exterior spigots, swimming pool service lines, and water sprinkler lines, but interior pipes are not necessarily safe. Indoor plumbing in unheated areas – basements, crawl spaces, attics, garages, exterior walls or even kitchen cabinets – are also not well protected from freezing temperatures.

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How to Prevent Frozen Pipes

Shut off the main water valve to the houseShut off the main water valve to the house

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Seasonal water damage to your home can be avoided entirely if you follow these tips for preventing pipes from freezing.

Know the location of your pipes and shutoff valves and perform preventive maintenance.

Preventing and preparing for frozen pipes begins with determining where your plumbing runs throughout your home and locating your main water shutoff valve. (The exact location may vary depending on the age of your home, but it's likely to be the garage, basement, laundry room, or yard.) It's recommended to have your plumbing and heating systems serviced by professionals every year so you can keep going Fix small problems before they become bigger problems with a freeze.

Drain the outside water pipes annually.

Winterizing your home and landscape is crucial when it comes to preventing outdoor water pipes from freezing. Each fall, homeowners should completely drain all outdoor water lines to swimming pools and sprinkler systems, disconnect and drain hoses, and close valves on outdoor hose connections.

Despite the chemical's name, you should never pour antifreeze into outdoor water supply lines. Antifreeze does not prevent pipes from freezing and is potentially harmful to your landscape, children, pets and wildlife.

How to prevent pipes from freezing.  Close-up of hands insulating copper pipesHow to prevent pipes from freezing.  Close-up of hands insulating copper pipes

Photo: istockphoto.com

Insulate vulnerable pipes and inadequately insulated areas of the home.

Pipes in unheated exterior walls, basements, crawl spaces, and garages should be insulated with rubber, fiberglass, or foam pipe insulation. In addition to the best pipe insulation you can find to prevent freezing, properly insulating rooms and eliminating gaps in drafty windows should also help keep your indoor plumbing at or above the minimum temperature to prevent pipes from freezing impede.

Turn on faucets before and during frost.

If you know a cold snap is coming, run a few faucets in the coldest areas of the house (where the pipes would most likely freeze). This age-old trick is effective because water flow can prevent pipes from freezing.

Leave the sink cabinet doors open to warm the indoor pipes.

Open cabinet doors under kitchen and bathroom sinks to expose cold pipes to warm air. Therefore, be careful not to cut off the heat from the interior pipes in cold areas of the house. During the coldest times of the year, it doesn't hurt to connect space heaters that run on a low setting in these problem areas.

How to prevent pipes from freezing by leaving the sink cabinet open for warm pipesHow to prevent pipes from freezing by leaving the sink cabinet open to warm pipes

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Keep your home extra warm when temperatures are around freezing or below.

Never turn off the heat completely on days or nights that fall below freezing, even if you are out of town. If you turn off your HVAC system, your pipes risk freezing – and even bursting – and the water damage you experience when you return could be significant.

Install a hot water circulation pump.

A hot water circulation pump monitors the water temperature of a plumbing system. This device connects to the home's water heater and automatically circulates warm water through the hot and cold water pipes when temperatures fall below a predetermined limit. This device saves you from having to remove particularly cold areas of the indoor installation yourself.

Get a frost alarm so you have time to take action before the pipes freeze.

Also consider installing a freeze alarm and setting it to send an alert to your phone when the indoor temperature drops below 45 degrees Fahrenheit. This gives you more time to warm areas that are at high risk of frozen pipes.

How to prevent pipes from freezing by turning the faucet on lowHow to prevent pipes from freezing by turning the faucet on low

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How to thaw frozen pipes

If your efforts to keep pipes from freezing aren't enough to combat the cold, don't panic: These instructions for thawing frozen pipes will help minimize (or avoid) water damage. If you notice one or more burst pipes while thawing, turn off the water supply and call a plumber.

STEP 1: Locate the frozen pipe(s).

If you suspect one or more of your pipes are frozen, fully open your home's faucets one at a time. If only a small drop of water flows from one of the taps, this is a sign that the pipes are frozen.

STEP 2: Keep affected faucets open.

Unless you have discovered a burst pipe, leave any faucets that are only running a little turned on. This will help melt the ice in the pipe while you continue to work on thawing it from the outside.

RELATED: 10 Emergencies Every Homeowner Should Handle

STEP 3: Apply heat to frozen pipe sections.

For exposed, frozen pipes, there are several ways to thaw frozen pipes. These heating methods – which do not involve the use of an open flame – include:

  • Wrapping frozen pipe sections with an electric heating pad
  • How to safely position (and reposition if necessary) a portable space heater near frozen pipes
  • Cover the pipes with towels soaked in hot water, reheat and unscrew as needed
  • For frozen pipe sections, use a hairdryer set to the highest heat setting

If your frozen pipes are in an enclosed space or behind walls, calling a plumber is highly recommended. If professional service is not an option, you may be able to turn up your home's thermostat to thaw the pipes indoors. It can not hurt! Otherwise, it's time to have frozen pipes diagnosed and repaired by a professional.

Final thoughts

Knowing how to keep pipes from freezing is a bulwark against some of the worst damage cold weather can inflict on a home. What's special about it is that it involves a mix of regular winterizing of the house, such as draining the outside pipes, and spontaneous adjustments, such as keeping faucets running continuously, which can only be done when you know a frost is imminent . Even the most careful preventative maintenance professional is not immune to the occasional frozen pipe or fixture. Therefore, it is just as important to also understand how to thaw frozen pipes in case the best-laid plans freeze.

Some tasks are better left to the professionals

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