We often don’t think about the pipes running through the walls and floors of our homes, but just one small crack in a water pipe can flood hundreds of gallons of water a day into your home or building, resulting in serious flooding, significant structural damage, and imminent mold growth.
Frozen pipes can affect buildings in cold and warm climates. Even in southern states, winter weather can sometimes shift dramatically dropping temperatures in to the single digits or below. Both plastic and copper pipes can be affected by plunging temperatures if not protected. More than 200,000 homes are affected by frozen pipes each year, but it is generally preventable with a little planning and preparation.
Below are a few tips to follow to prevent a water damage disaster in your home or building.
Steps to take before the winter months
The main causes of frozen pipes are sudden dips in temperature, insufficient insulation, and thermostats set too low. The warmer months are the best time to prepare.
- Be sure to insulate any pipes in the crawlspace and attic areas, even if your building is in a warmer climate with infrequent freezing temperatures. Un-insulated and unheated pipes are most susceptible to freezing.
- Heat tape or temperature controlled heat cables can be wrapped around pipes to keep them from freezing. Self-regulating heating cable is made so that pipes won’t fall below a certain temperature, usually 35 degrees Fahrenheit. Be sure to use UL approved products for their intended use (exterior vs. interior).
- Seal any air leaks in your home or building that would allow cold air near the locations of water pipes. Look around the exterior for gaps near electrical wiring, dryer vents, outdoor faucets, pipes etc. Fill the gaps with caulk or weather resistant spray foam insulation to keep cold air from seeping inside. The less cold air seeping inside, the better.
- Disconnect garden hoses, replace outside faucets with frost-free faucets, and when possible, use an indoor shut-off valve to drain water from pipes leading to outside faucets.
What to do when freezing temperatures arrive
Here are some steps to take during very extreme weather conditions to further reduce the risk of freezing pipes and flooding:
- A slow drip of water will go a long way in keeping your pipes from freezing. It’s harder for moving water to freeze. Let warm water drip overnight and during frigid temperatures from an indoor faucet near an outside wall. This is a tried an true method used for decades.
- Set the thermostat at the same temperature during the day and night during frigid weather periods. This is an extra measure you can take when temperatures plummet to the single digits or below, especially in older houses with less insulation than newer construction. When the temperatures drop very low overnight, a low set-point on the thermostat could be just what it takes to freeze your pipes and flood your basement.
- Open cabinet and closet doors during cold weather periods to allow heated air to reach un-insulated pipes under sinks and appliances near exterior walls.
Winterizing your home before going on vacation
Escaping the cold weather for warmer climates is a great strategy, but remember to prepare your pipes for the cold before you go.
- Lower the thermostat in your house or building, but don’t set it below 55°F (12°C).
- Ask someone to check your house daily during frigid temps to ensure the furnace and thermostat are keeping it warm enough to prevent freezing pipes.
- Drain the water system. (Note: If you have a sprinkler system, it may be deactivated when you shut off the water.)
What to do if your pipes freeze
Even if your pipes have frozen, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’ve burst. This is what to do:
- If water is not coming out of the faucets, leave them turned on and call a plumber.
- It may be possible to thaw a frozen pipe with a hair dryer or space heater. Start as close to the faucet as possible, then work toward the coldest section of the pipe.
- If your pipes have already burst, turn off the water at the main shutoff valve and leave the faucets turned on. Be sure everyone in your home always knows where to find the water shutoff valve and how to open and close it.
- Don’t use electrical appliances in areas of standing water.
- Never try to thaw a pipe with a torch or other open flame because it could cause further damage or a fire.
- Call a water restoration company and your home insurance company if necessary.