We get a lot of inquiries about winterizing houses and concerns about frozen pipes this time of year. Properly winterizing a house is somewhat time consuming and requires a fair amount of non-toxic anti-freeze, some special equipment and a bit of understanding about how houses are piped.
Here are the conditions that can lead to burst pipes, along with some tips to prevent the problem.
When do pipes freeze? How do you prevent it?
It is common knowledge that water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, but our experience with frozen pipes has taught them a bit more about this frozen pipe issue than the freezing temperature alone would indicate. The location of a pipe and how long the temperature has been below freezing are very significant factors. For most homes, internal pipes freeze at much lower temperatures than most homeowners would expect.
Conversely, we get a surprising amount of calls about frozen pipes in houses that are well heated. Usually, it is the use of supplemental heaters to save money that causes the trouble. Other spaces that are unattended can be trouble spots and are worth paying attention to when the weather gets really cold. If a homeowner heats an area to keep the main heating system off, they have to be conscious of the other areas the heating system protects as well. This is one of the most common scenarios of frozen pipes that professionals see.
There is no disputing that pipes freeze if they are below 32 degrees for any length of time. Insulation alone will not solve that problem because if it is below freezing temperature and the pipe is insulated, it will still freeze. This sounds like common sense, but it is not always obvious. If a pipe runs through a space that drops below freezing, the pipe must have a way of being heated besides being insulated. Heat tape comes to mind; although, that is not without its own set of concerns.
A common freeze-up situation happens when a pipe is just a little exposed and the weather is both cold and windy. The wind does a good job of increasing the exposure of the pipe and this is often the primary cause of deep winter frozen pipe calls. The pipe was insulated and pretty well protected but there was just that one little crack in the insulation or protection. Hot water pipes freeze like this as well, and it happens more than you would think. It’s important that the pipes are completely isolated from the freezing temperatures. Internal piping is the best bet but not always possible.
If a house is relatively “tight” and the pipes are all reasonably well-protected, it is relatively uncommon for pipes to freeze unless the heat has been off for an extended period of time. If it is really cold (single digits or below) and windy, and it has been that way for a few days – this is when homes find themselves in the danger zone. Warmer than that for shorter periods of time usually allows for quite a bit of latitude, if the house is in pretty good shape. If in doubt, a local heating professional; they can always help.
Preventing Frozen Pipes
Make sure that your hose faucets are turned off on both the outside and the inside of the house. Also, having frost-free hose bibs would be a smart upgrade to help prevent your pipes from freezing.
Insulate your pipes – especially in unheated areas (basement, attic, crawlspace and etc.). Pipes that are located outside your home, along exterior walls and under kitchen and bathroom cabinets are also subject to freezing and should also be insulated. Wen you are not going to be home, keep the heat in your house up to at least 60 degrees Fahrenheit.
And lastly, if your heat goes out for an extended period of time, make sure to turn of the water at the main shut-off valve and open the faucets; this will prevent water from staying in the pipes and freezing.
If you did need to use the water, you can always turn the water back on temporarily. If your pipes do freeze, it is VERY IMPORTANT to avoid thawing any pipe with an open flame. This could cause further damage to your pipes or–in the worst case scenario–even start a fire in your home.