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Avoiding the Big Chill: Protecting Your Home From Frozen Pipes

By Kyle McBride

  • Whether you live in a cold or mild climate, the possibility of frozen pipes can be a concern. Learn how to prevent costly damage to your home by taking steps to keep your pipes from freezing.

    The temperature has dropped and a freeze is in the forecast. Your winter-preparedness measures are about to be put to the test. Of all the challenges freezing temperatures bring, the possibility of frozen pipes belongs high on the list. Even places we normally think of as having a mild climate can have temperatures that dip below freezing.

    It's Not Just a Northern Problem
    According to the National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office, a winter storm in February 2011 saw temperatures plummet into the single digits across northern and central Mississippi — a state normally associated with mild temperatures. "Freezing pipes are a concern," says Tim Curtis, deputy director of the DeSoto County Emergency Services in Mississippi. "Most of the folks I know take some kind of preventive measures. The problems arise when a sudden, unexpected cold snap occurs that catches people off-guard, or when an extended period of below-freezing weather exceeds the measures they took."

    What Causes Pipes to Freeze?
    When exposed to cold temperatures at or below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, the water in your pipes starts to freeze. According to the National Weather Service, wind chill is not a factor. If the wind chill is below freezing but the air temperature is not, the pipes will lose heat at a faster rate, but won't reach the freezing point. Only freezing air temperatures cause your pipes to freeze. Water expands about 9 percent in volume when it freezes. If the freezing water is contained inside a pipe, the expanding ice is strong enough to burst the pipe and then cause flooding when the ice thaws.

    Take Immediate Measures
    Basic measures, such as keeping exterior doors closed and opening interior cabinet doors during cold weather, allow heated air to circulate around vulnerable pipes. That's why it's important to block drafts between heated and unheated areas of your home, and seal unheated basements and crawl spaces against outside air. Disconnect garden hoses and sprinkler systems, and drain exterior pipes before temperatures start to dip. Keep your thermostat at 55 degrees Fahrenheit or higher when you are out of the house. Set the thermostat higher if poor insulation in floors, walls or ceilings allows some areas of the house to get cold even when the heat is set to a comfortable level. For example, if a bathroom on an exterior wall gets cold, even though the rest of the house is warm, set the thermostat high enough to keep the temperature at least 50 degrees in that room.

    Running water has a lower freezing point than still water. If cold temperatures threaten to exceed your winter-preparedness measures, you may want to use this short-term option to prevent frozen pipes. Slightly open faucets connected to vulnerable pipes, so they dribble water during a cold snap, and the pipes will be less likely to freeze. Meteorologist David Unger at the Climate Prediction Center of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) offers his knowledge based on familial experience. "My wife's parents had a big problem with their home in New York. They had to keep faucets dripping to keep water running through the pipes whenever temperatures got below zero. ... They solved the problem by installing some heating in the crawl space under the addition that caused the problem."

    Long-Term Planning
    For the long term, insulate all pipes vulnerable to freezing temperatures. These include exterior pipes, pipes in an unheated garage or under your home in unheated crawl spaces, and pipes in poorly insulated walls or under floors.

    New Technologies
    Technology is offering some relief for concerned homeowners. An integrated loop, hot-water recirculation system runs water through pipes intermittently. The purpose of this system is to provide instant hot water when you turn on the faucet. But a side benefit is that the water circulates in your pipes even when the faucets are off, preventing your pipes from freezing.

    Alarms that monitor interior spaces in your home can alert you when the temperature gets below preset levels. Hooked into the telephone line, the system can call a predetermined number to alert you or a monitoring service of a problem.

    Perhaps the most-used technology homeowners have at their disposal is better weather forecasting. "The major advance in weather forecasting comes from better observations — for example, jet airliners now are equipped with instruments to measure weather, and transmit the information to the [National] Weather Service. We have satellites and better radar these days," says David Unger at NOAA. "Computer advances also enable computer models of the atmosphere to have a lot more detail, and can be run multiple times to give an idea of a range of possibilities, rather than a single prediction, as was done 30 years ago." Knowing cold weather is coming well in advance gives homeowners more time to make preparations.

    What Should You Do if Your Pipes Freeze?
    Before you're dealing with an emergency water leak, you should know where the main water shutoff valve is in your house. If you find a frozen pipe, you can attempt to thaw it by turning on the faucets fed by the pipe. Remove any insulation that may be on the pipe and wrap the pipe with rags or towels. The towels should absorb the water or, if there's a lot of runoff, direct it to the lowest point where it can drip into a bucket or dish tub.

    If a pipe bursts, close the main water shutoff valve. Minimize losses by moving your property out of the potential flooding area, but take care to avoid electrical shocks from water that comes in contact with appliances.
  • To help customers affected by frozen pipes, Liberty Mutual Insurance works with professional water mitigation companies that specialize in drying and restoring water-damaged homes. The Liberty Mutual Claims Center is available to assist insured homeowners, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, at 1-800-2CLAIMS.