Don’t let the cold weather play Russian roulette with your pipes. Water freezes and turns to ice, and when that happens it expands. If that water happens to be inside a metal pipe, it may be strong enough to burst that pipe open. So if you live in an area where water freezes in the wintertime, you’ve got to start winterizing your plumbing.
Are you going on vacation? Do you own a property that you don’t live in full-time? Unattended plumbing systems are much, much more likely to fall prey to winter weather. If you own property where hot water isn’t going to be used for many days or weeks at a time, you’ve got to winterize.
Begin by turning off your main water valve. This will be located in different places, depending on the home’s plumbing design. The valve may be in the basement or near the crawl space, when either is present. You will also commonly find main valves in the same room with the water heater.
Go outside and turn on your hose bib (the outside faucet where you connect the hose). This allows water to drain out of all the pipes. If you have a basement, turn any faucets on here to drain the water.
Buy a large bottle of windshield wiper fluid, liquid that will not freeze even in freezing temperature conditions. Put about 2 cups of this fluid into all drains. This includes the sinks, showers and bath tubs. The goal is to allow the liquid to drain down to the trap, where it will stay. Plumbing traps must have liquid in them to prevent noxious sewer gas smells. But in winter, ordinary water may freeze in that trap and burst pipes. Use your windshield fluid instead. To finish the job, pour about 4 cups of the fluid into each toilet (and don’t flush!).
Staying in the Cold
Even if you plan on using your plumbing system throughout the winter, certain pipes and fixtures can still freeze in cold weather. A burst pipe will create a leak. Plumbing leaks compromise water pressure in the system and they can also be costly, because you’re losing water a drip at a time, or because it's spraying around and damaging everything. Even when hot water is moving through the pipes, certain areas of the home may be at risk in cold winter weather.
Check the inside of all your exterior walls. Exterior walls are exposed to the cold. Any plumbing pipes against these walls are at risk. Insulate them to protect them from the cold. Pipe insulation is foam-like material that can be purchased at any home improvement store. Simply wrap it around pipes and use duct or electrical tape to keep it in place.
The same goes for pipes in unconditioned spaces, like attics, crawlspaces and basements.
Next, you need to shut off your hose bibs (the outside faucets). It’s highly unlikely you will be using your garden hose in the winter, and this is why this particular fixture is so prone to freezing and bursting in cold conditions. Locate the inside shut-off valve for this fixture (it’s commonly found under the kitchen sink) and turn it off.
Go outside and disconnect the hose if it is in place. Now, turn on the hose bib to allow any water inside the pipe to drain. Turn off the outside shut-off valve as well. No water will flow to the hose bib while the shut-offs are engaged, so write yourself a note to open them back up once spring rolls around.
Damaged pipes are a nightmare to deal with, and they can become a very costly problem to have. Save yourself a lot of trouble with proper winterizing techniques, and protect your pipes from winter’s bite.