A burst pipe is one of the most potentially destructive problems that can occur in your home. But with a little planning and preventive maintenance, you can do a lot to protect your pipes. Here's a step-by-step guide to keeping your pipes from freezing before winter arrives, along with tips on what to do if a pipe does freeze or burst. Prepare Your Pipes For Winter
Many newer homes have pipes and insulation that are designed to withstand subfreezing temperatures. However, older homes - and homes in regions that tend to have mild winters - frequently have pipes running through spaces that are not well-insulated. Completely retrofitting your plumbing can be cost-prohibitive, but fortunately you can winterize your existing plumbing by following these simple steps:
Prevent Freezing Pipes During Winter Months
- Find your shutoff valve: Before the temperature starts to drop, find and mark your water shutoff valves. In most homes, you have two options: The main shutoff valve and the meter connection. The main valve is likely on an exterior wall near a faucet, or inside your basement or utility room. Turning the water off at the meter requires a water meter key, available at most hardware stores. In either case, confirm the location and visibly mark the shutoff before the start of winter.
- Drain outdoor plumbing lines: Prevent frozen pipes by draining outdoor plumbing lines in late fall, including lines feeding pools, irrigation systems, and sprinkler systems.
- Protect exposed pipes: Crawlspaces, garages, and attics tend to be uninsulated and are exposed to cold air. If your winters are relatively mild, protect your exposed plumbing in these areas by wrapping pipes with foam insulation. You can buy foam tubes in different thicknesses and pipe widths at your local hardware store.
Heat cable (sometimes also called heat trace or heat tape) is another option, especially for more extreme climates. Once it's plugged in and secured along the length of pipe, heat cable generates enough warmth to keep your plumbing at a stable, above-freezing temperature. You can buy heat cable at local hardware stores and use it by itself or in combination with foam insulation.
- Protect your attic and crawlspace: Your attic needs adequate insulation to keep warm air from leaking up from your living space, which means your attic will be cold in winter. However, don't try to warm it by blocking off your roof vents to retain heat. Especially if it snows where you live, your attic really needs this flow of cold air on the underside of the roof — it keeps the snow from melting as quickly, which helps prevent ice dams. Instead, seal off the cold air leaks that your attic doesn't need by following the guidelines in the EPA's DIY guide to sealing and insulating.
Your crawlspace vents, on the other hand, are fine to cover in winter to keep the crawlspace warmer. You can cut sheets of foam insulation to shape or buy pre-made foam blocks. Just be sure to remove them when the weather starts to warm - your crawlspace needs that air circulation to prevent mold.
Pro Tip: If you're building a new home, consider installing pre-insulated pipes in areas vulnerable to freezing, such as underground irrigation, crawlspaces, attics, or exterior walls. Pre-insulated pipes are more expensive than un-insulated PVC, PEX, or copper, but they can be well worth the investment if you live in an area where temperatures routinely fall well below freezing.
Once cold weather arrives, there are a few more tricks homeowners can use to help prevent freezing pipes.
What to Do If Pipes Do Freeze
- Turn off water to outdoor faucets: One of the easiest, cheapest things you can do to protect your pipes from freezing is to turn off water to outdoor taps, then open up the tap all the way to let the residual water drain away. In all but the oldest homes, pipes to the outdoor faucets have a shutoff valve you can use to cut off water to the outdoor connections without impacting water flow to the rest of the house. A licensed plumber can easily install a shut-off valve if your plumbing line doesn't already have one.
- Drip the faucets: Water expands when it freezes, so many homeowners assume pipes burst because of that expanding water. More commonly, however, pipes burst because of water pressure building up behind the ice. With nowhere to go, this buildup will eventually rupture pipes or cause them to leak at their weak points, such as fittings and joints. Allowing your indoor faucets to drip may help slow down the freezing process a little, but the bigger advantage is that, by opening the taps, you will relieve that pressure.
- Keep the heat on: The heat in your home's living space is critical to keeping pipes from freezing. Don't try to save money by turning off the heat in unused spaces (or in the whole house when you're traveling). And if you're facing a polar vortex, consider turning your heat up a few extra degrees for a little extra protection.
- Open cabinet doors: Opening cabinet doors will let heated air reach under-sink plumbing, which can also help slow down or prevent freezing. If you have children or pets, be sure to remove and safely store cleaning chemicals or any other hazards you've been keeping in the cabinets.
If you open a tap and water doesn't come out, or if you flush a toilet and it doesn't refill, chances are you have a frozen pipe. Fortunately, you can still take measures to prevent or minimize damage.
If Your Pipe Bursts
- Turn off your water: If you suspect you have a frozen pipe, your very first course of action should be to shut off the water at the main valve or the meter in case the pipe does burst. Once the water is shut off, open up all the taps in your house. This will help relieve any pressure building up inside the lines.
- Thaw the pipe: When water isn't coming out of a particular tap or refilling a specific toilet, begin by warming the connecting pipe. Gently use a hair dryer, starting at the faucet and working your way back.
- Work with a partner: A burst pipe can cause a lot of damage very quickly, so the faster you can figure out whether you have a leak, the less water damage you'll be dealing with. When the pipe is thawed and you're ready to turn the water on, recruit a friend or two to help you spot any leaks. Station your friend in an unheated area of your home, like your attic or crawlspace, to look and listen for leaks as you turn the water back on.
If a pipe has burst, you'll immediately notice abundant water or a rushing sound in the walls. In this case, shut off the water to your house immediately and call a licensed plumber. If no apparent leaks are detected, check each of your faucets in turn. If you notice low water pressure at a particular fixture, you may have a slow leak in that line. You'll want to call a plumber to investigate further. Visually inspect exposed pipes in your attic, crawlspace and utility room as well.
If you suspect a burst pipe, shut off the water to your home immediately and contact a licensed plumber to assess and address the situation. However, by following these precautions and staying vigilant, there's a much lower chance you'll have to do that.