How to Prevent Frozen Pipes

The winter of 2014 will likely be remembered for a long time, especially by residents in the South (I know we here in North Georgia won’t soon forget it), many of whom were woefully unprepared for the ice, snow and cold weather blues. And it isn’t over yet – the official first day of spring (according to the ever-reliable Farmer’s Almanac) doesn’t begin until March 20. In light of that, and in early preparation for next year, today’s article is going to discuss how to prevent frozen and burst pipes. You will find some simple steps that can save you a lot of hassle – and more importantly – a ton of money.

What Causes a Pipe to Burst

When we think of pipe bursts, we often think that they are caused by ice build-up in the specific area where the pipe breaks. However, pipes do not burst because of the expansion of ice against the walls. Instead, frozen pipes break because of water pressure increases downstream due to a cycle of freezing and expansion inside of the pipe. The pressure from unfrozen water builds in between the actual ice blockage and a closed faucet at the end, resulting in the fracture.

Most homes in colder climates are built to help combat frozen and burst pipes. For starters, they usually have water pipes that are located on the interior of the building and are well insulated, helping to reduce the possibility of freezing. This isn’t fail-proof of course, as any holes or structural damage (such as cracks) can allow cold air to reach the pipes and freeze them.

Home builders in the south don’t always take cold weather into consideration, leaving your home vulnerable to cold snaps and cold fronts. Pipes can often be located on the exterior of the home or do not have proper insulation. The same can be said of pipes in the attic and any crawl spaces, where holes, cracks and poor insulation are common.

Below is a list of common problem areas:

  • Outdoor Hose Bibs
  • Outdoor supply line, such as for swimming pools, water sprinklers and washing machines
  • Water pipes in poorly insulated, non-heated areas like basements, attics, garages and crawl spaces
  • Plumbing pipes on exterior walls
  • Water pipes near areas of a wall that has cracks or holes. Beware of telephone and cable line entry points, as these entryways can let air chill walls with pipes in them.

How to Prevent Frozen Pipes

The best way to prevent frozen or burst pipes is to take steps prior to the onset of wintry weather. If you feel uncomfortable taking any of the following steps on your own, or you want a second, expert opinion, I highly urge you to consult a plumbing professional. Tracy Tesmer Design/Remodeling will be more than happy to supply you with a contractor referral, or you can do a Google search for your area. Be sure to read online reviews, ask for references (and interview them!), and perform proper due diligence before hiring any contractor.

  • One of the worst things you can do is leave a hose attached to your hose bib. This is a big no-no. Make sure you remove and drain all outdoor hoses, then turn off any valves supplying water to your outdoor hose bibs. Next, open the hose bib up to allow any excess water to drain. Ideally you should get a proper foam cover for your hose bib. You can also try a frost-proof or freeze-proof hose bib, though I would suggest following the same steps for a normal hose bib as an added precaution.
  • You should drain water from any outside supply lines, such as those used for swimming pools and sprinklers.
  • Insulate any pipes in the problem areas we mentioned in our previous section.
  • Use portable heaters (beware of flammable items) in unheated areas to increase the temperature when the cold does set in.
  • To be safe, you could wrap problem pipes in electric heat tape, particularly if the cold snap is predicted to last for more than a day or two.
  • Leave any cabinet doors under your bathroom and kitchen sinks open. This lets the warm air from inside your home warm up the pipes.
  • You can also let your faucets run at a slow trickle. It won’t prevent freezing, but will help to prevent pressure building in the lines.

How to Thaw a Frozen Pipe

You may ask yourself the question: How do I know if I have a frozen pipe? The answer is fairly simple. If you turn on a faucet and only a trickle of water comes out of it, you may have a frozen pipe.

Try locating the problem pipe if possible. Leave the faucet open – this will let you know when the freeze has begun to open, and also help thaw out the pipe. Don’t shut it off until the water flows normally.

If you know where the pipe is, you can use a portable heater to try to heat the general area (beware of flammable items and chemicals). You can also use a blow dryer to try and unfreeze the pipe. Whatever you do, never use any type of open flame, including lighters, torches and so forth – if you apply too much heat, it can cause the pipe to burst.

If you are able to unthaw your pipe, be sure to check other areas in your home. The odds of more than one pipe freezing are pretty high.

If you are unable to thaw your water pipes, or feel uncomfortable with the process, I would suggest you contact a professional, licensed plumber – the nominal fee is well worth the cost of preventing a burst pipe!