In this article, you'll learn
- What costs are associated with frozen pipes.
- How to unfreeze pipes.
- How to keep pipes from freezing with no heat.
- How to prepare your home for vacations, extended leaves, or before selling to keep your pipes from freezing.
Every winter in the United States, approximately 250,000 homes sustain damage from water pipes that freeze and break. Your home could lose up to 50% of its market value if this happens because once the pipes freeze and break, the water that leaks from them can destroy walls, floors and sub-floors. Such a leak can even flood the basement and cause structural damage to floor joists; there is also the risk of black mold growing in your home as a result of water damage. It’s hard to imagine, but even a small 8-inch crack in a pipe can leak up to 250 gallons of water a day and both plastic and copper pipes can burst when frozen. The good news is that there are some preventative measures you can take to keep your pipes from freezing.
Seasonal and Timely Tips for Everyone
“An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure” should be the mantra of every homeowner because some preventative maintenance can avoid or reduce costlier damage and repairs down the road. You should check your plumbing on a regular basis and promptly repair all leaks. Even minor seepage can cause a lot of damage if it goes undetected and is not addressed for a period of time; and a pipe with a small leak becomes a big problem if that pipe should freeze. Pipes in basements should be wrapped with pipe insulating wrap or heat tape to help prevent freezing; this also saves energy because your hot water pipes will not cool down as quickly. In crawl spaces, be sure to use weather-proof insulation on pipes. Heat tape and heat lamps can also be used in crawl spaces, however during a power outage, a generator will be needed to keep such items functioning.
Every homeowner who lives in a four-season climate should do the following each year before cold temperatures move in:
- Disconnect and drain all garden hoses from outdoor faucets.
- Drain and shut off outside faucets. Use the shut off valve indoors to keep water from seeping into the outside portion of the faucet, and then drain the exterior portion of the fixture.
- Shut down and drain any outdoor irrigation and lawn sprinkler systems; drain and winterize swimming pools and outdoor hot tubs according to manufacturer’s directions.
- Know where your main water supply shut off valve is located and how to turn it off and on; this allows you to quickly turn off the water in case of a leak. If your home does not have a main water supply shut off valve, contact a plumber to have one installed.
When it is dangerously cold, open the cabinet doors under your sinks to allow warm air to keep pipes from freezing. Also, letting your faucets drip at a slight trickle can keep pipes from freezing. Be sure to fill in holes around doors, windows and walls with caulk to prevent cold outside air from freezing your pipes.
What to do if your Pipes Freeze
Pipes that have frozen can be thawed by wrapping them in rags and continuously pouring hot water over the rags. Once the pipes have thawed, remove the rags and dry any moisture on the pipes with dry rags. Then wrap the pipes in dry insulation material to keep them from refreezing. If this method is unsuccessful or if allowing heat from the house to access frozen pipes under a sink in a cabinet, for example, does not work, then you should call a plumber. Do not use electrical devices or devices with open flames, such as blow torches, to reheat frozen pipes since this can cause electrical shock or a fire.
Preventing Pipe Freezes in Vacant Homes
A vacant home is at greatest risk of damage from frozen pipes because by the time you return, a great deal of damage may have already occurred. If you are planning to leave your home for a period of time, it is important to winterize it properly. It is important to remember that many homeowner insurance policies do not cover homes when they are vacant, so one of the first things you should do is check your policy before leaving and upgrade it accordingly if necessary. Also check your policy to see if it stipulates that someone must regularly check on your home while it is vacant in order to keep the policy in force.
Now that you know you are covered in case the worst should happen, take precautions to protect your vacant home from freezing pipes. Here are some Do’s and Don’ts:
- Do NOT turn off the heat: Even though you think you may save on your utility bill, the minimal expense of leaving the heat running at no less than 55 degrees Fahrenheit is substantially less than the cost of repairing damage from frozen pipes. Keeping the heat on also protects your home and contents. It prevents moisture from building up inside the house, which can wreak havoc on drywall, furnishes, wood surfaces and appliances. The stress from a cold winter in an unheated home can do substantial damage even if the pipes did not freeze.
- DO turn off the water: Locate and turn off the main water shut off valve, which is usually located outside the home. If the home’s water supply is a well, then you should also turn off the power breaker to the well pump system.
- DO turn off and drain the water heater: On a gas water heater, turn the temperature controls to the OFF position and close the valve that supplies the gas. An electric water heater should be turned off at the power breaker. Place a bucket under the spigot or faucet of the unit and open the valve to empty the unit.
- DO drain the water supply lines: The next step is to drain the all the water from the water supply system. Open faucets until they run dry. If the house is supplied by a well, the pressure tank where the water is stored should be drained.
- DO blow out the water supply lines: While it may be tempting to skip this step, doing so could be costly because some residual water will remain in the pipes and they can freeze if the power should go out. An air compressor should be used to blow out the lines. If you hire a plumber or handyman to winterize the house, check their level of expertise and ask about this step. In order to do this step yourself, in addition to the compressor, you will need a special fitting to connect the compressor to the plumbing. The process involves systematically opening the faucets and valves of the fixtures, working with those furthest in the plumbing system from the compressor first and blowing them out; then working backwards from there to those closest to the compressor.
- DO drain out other components of your water system: You also need to drain auxiliary units and components such as water softener and filtering systems. The tank that holds the brine from a water softening system does not need to be drained in most cases.
- DO add anti-freeze: After all the water supply lines are empty and blown out, flush the toilets until they are empty. Next, add anti-freeze to toilets and drain traps to keep them from freezing. However, be sure to use non-toxic, pink RV type anti-freeze solution which can be found at most auto supply stores or auto supple departments of big box stores.
- DO drain appliances: Appliances that use water, such as your washing machine, dishwasher and refrigerator, can also freeze. The water supply line to the ice maker on a refrigerator is especially prone to freezing in a power failure. Each appliance should be drained and/or disconnected. Some professionals also recommend that RV type anti-freeze be added to the bottom of a dishwasher and washing machine.
- DO turn off the electricity to appliances: Switch the electrical breakers to appliances in the off position, as well as breakers to items that do not need to stay on. Post reminder notes on appliances and the water heater so that these are not turned on before the water service is restored. If your home has a sump pump, make sure that you do not inadvertently shut off the breaker to the pump.
- DO drain specialty heating systems: If your home has special heating systems, such as radiant floor heat or a heat pump, these could potentially freeze as well. Consult a professional about the best way to drain and protect these systems through the winter.
- DO post warning signs where they will be noticed: If the house is for sale or will possibly be used by someone else, post conspicuous signs throughout the house that say “WARNING: HOME IS WINTERIZED - PLUMBING IS TURNED OFF”, so that appliances are not turned on unintentionally.
If you have any doubts about performing any of these steps on your own, you should not hesitate call a plumber. This service can cost from $400 to $600, but it is well worth the investment rather than run the risk of damage from frozen pipes. Keep in mind that when it is time to turn the water back on again, this whole process must be done in reverse and all faucets and valves should be turned off before turning on the main water supply.
While the process to winterize is labor intensive and can be expensive if hiring a plumber, repairing your home after the pipes have frozen is a much costlier endeavor that can take months to complete.