Frozen water pipes are a real concern for homeowners living in many regions, not just the Snow Belt. When uninsulated water-supply pipes are exposed to frigid air, the water inside can freeze, expand, and rip open the pipe. The resulting water damage can be extensive, depending on the pipe’s location and how long the problem goes unnoticed.
And busted water pipes are a much bigger problem than you might imagine. According to State Farm Insurance, more than 250,000 homes are damaged annually by frozen or burst water pipes, ranking second only to hurricanes in terms of damage and repair costs. However, unlike hurricanes, frozen water pipes can be prevented. Here are some simple precautions to follow:
- Insulate all exposed water-supply pipes—not just the hot-water pipes—in the basement, crawlspace, attic, and along outside walls. There are several different kinds of pipe insulation available, but I’ve had good results with the thick foam-rubber type.
- Use caulk or, better yet, expanding foam insulation to plug up all cracks, holes, and pipe and cable penetrations in exterior walls, especially those positioned close to water-supply pipes.
- Clearly identify the main water shut-off valve with a large sign or tag. Then be sure that each member of the household knows where the valve is located and how to shut it off in case of an emergency. It’s also recommended that you fully open and close the valve at least twice a year, just to keep it in good working order.
- Disconnect all garden hoses from outdoor faucets (a.k.a.: sillcocks), and remove the anti-backflow regulators, if installed. Then, open the outdoor faucets to allow any trapped water to drain out. Close the faucets for the season.
- When you’re away from home for an extended period of time, turn the heating thermostat down to no lower than 55° F. And ask a neighbor to check on the house every few days just to be sure the heat is on.
- In extremely frigid weather, consider opening sink faucets just enough to allow the water to drip out; that will relieve pressure and help prevent the pipes from freezing.
If a pipe does freeze, follow these suggestions:
- Immediately shut off the main water valve to prevent any further damage. Then call a plumber and contact your homeowner’s insurance agent.
- Never try to thaw a frozen pipe with a propane torch or other open flame. You might damage the pipe, or worse, start a fire. Instead, use a blow dryer or electric heat gun to slowly melt the blockage.
It’s interesting to note that the Building Research Council at the University of Illinois conducted field tests of residential water systems subjected to winter temperatures. It found that the onset of pipe freezing—known as the Temperature Alert Threshold (TAT)—began when the outside temperature fell to 20° F. This finding was later supported by a survey of 71 plumbers practicing in southern states.
However, a pipe can freeze at temperatures warmer than 20°, especially if it’s being continuously buffeted by frigid air, so use this TAT as a general guideline.