Guide to Avoiding Frozen Pipes

A copper pipe with freeze damage.

Knowing how to prevent your pipes from freezing can be a lifesaver. Often, the damage from a frozen pipe extends beyond just replacing your plumbing. Walls, ceilings, floors and personal possessions stored in the basement or crawl space can all be ruined and make this particular home malady a very costly one. Damages are sometimes covered by insurance, but even then, you’ll likely be living in a construction zone until the mess gets repaired in its entirety.

Keep in mind that there is no middle ground here. Either you spend a lot of money when a pipe freezes and bursts, or you stop it before it ever happens. If a pipe bursts due to freezing you won’t see any warning signs like leaking or running water. Any leaking water will be frozen solid and you will get no kind of heads up before it’s too late.

Deciding to stop your pipes from freezing in the first place is your best option, and all of these tips are actions you should take before the cold weather season arrives.

Draining the Lines

Shut off the valves supplying your outside water lines. Individual supply lines running to the outside (hose bibs for example) will usually have a shut off valve on the inside of your home, close to where the supply goes outside. Drain the outside lines by opening the tap and then leave it in the open position. As long as it remains open, even a small amount of leftover water in the line can freeze and expand without causing any damage.

Insulating Your Pipes

Pipes running through unheated spaces should be covered with insulation. This includes plumbing that runs through the inside of the home. Preformed pipe sleeve insulation shaped to go right around a copper water pipe is an inexpensive option or if you are short on time or funds, simple fiberglass insulation can help your cause.

Heating the Pipes

Electrical heating tape specifically designed to wrap around water pipes and act like a little electric blanket to prevents the pipes from freezing. This is much more effective than simple insulation in preventing pipe freeze but is also a more expensive option.

When purchasing either insulation or electrical heat tape, be sure to account for your hot water pipes as well. You may have a plumbing system that has certain areas or pipes that carry only hot water, but these can freeze just as easily as pipes that carry cool water.

Tip: Be sure any heating tapes you buy have been approved by Underwriters Laboratories and have the UL symbol on them.

Running the Taps

If you get caught by a sudden cold snap or haven't had a chance to insulate your pipes, a short term solution can be to leave a tap running slowly to prevent them from freezing. To avoid wasting water, collect it in a container to water plants, rinse dishes, or for other uses.

Repairing the Damage

When tackling this kind of a task, you’re essentially waging a war on nature. Depending on the temperature in your area, it’s possible that your pipes may still freeze and need repair despite you adhering to these guidelines.

First determine if a frozen pipe has actually burst or is just frozen and blocking the water flow. If the pipe has burst, you'll need to repair the pipe before you thaw it.

Frozen But Not Broken

For a pipe that has frozen but not burst, the first thing to do is shut off the water flow to the pipe. The main shut off valve for your house is usually close to your water meter or where the water supply comes into your home. Open a couple of faucets as well so any steam or water can escape while you thaw the pipe.

You want to heat the frozen pipe slowly, being sure the water inside doesn't boil or the pipe becomes too hot to touch, so don't use propane or a welding torch to melt the ice. Instead, use a hairdryer, a small space heater aimed at the blockage, or wrap the frozen section with pipe heating tape and plug it in for a while.

Vacation Homes

The major damage from frozen pipes comes when a home is unoccupied during a cold spell and all the frozen water from the cold season thaws and leaks when things warm up. If you're going to be away from your home for a while, you can prevent this from happening by actually shutting off the water supply to your entire home and opening the taps to drain the water in the pipes. Be sure you shut off your hot water tank as well. This way even if your furnace does stop working while you're away there isn’t any water in the pipes to freeze.