The first weeks of 2018 brought winter storms and freezing temperatures to parts of the Southern U.S. that rarely see ice, forcing the closure of schools and highways across the region. But the deep freeze also wreaked havoc inside people’s homes by freezing the water inside plumbing pipes, causing them to burst.
In a study of water damage insurance claims by the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety, 18 percent of all plumbing-related water damage claims were due to frozen pipes. The study also found that losses due to frozen pipe incidents were roughly twice as severe than in accidents involving plumbing material failure.
The best way to prevent frozen pipes is to protect vulnerable pipes with inexpensive, easy-to-install insulation. But there are also last-minute preventative measures you can use in a pinch, and if your pipes should freeze, there are safe ways to thaw them before permanent damage occurs. Use these tips to avoid this messy and costly household disaster.
How to Insulate Your Pipes
It only takes a small amount of time and money to insulate the most exposed sections of your home’s plumbing system, and if you do the job right, you won’t have to worry about sudden cold snaps. Insulating foam sheaths are available at most hardware stores in a variety of diameters and lengths, and they easily attach to pipes with self-adhesive strips or pipe clamps.
The tricky part might be tracking your home’s main water line from the point where it emerges from the ground to the point where it enters the heated space of your home. This entire span of pipe should be insulated, and it may run through a crawlspace or other hard-to-reach places. If you can’t follow this entire length of pipe, you may need to enlist the help of a plumber.
This is also a good time to locate your home’s main water shut-off valve and check to make sure it opens and closes smoothly. In the event of a broken pipe due to freezing or any other cause, the first thing you’ll want to do is close this valve. The main valve may be located in the basement, just outside of the house or even under a grate near the street, and turning it may require a special wrench called a water key.
Aside from your main water line, you should also insulate any pipes that reach outside the heated environment of your home. This includes attics, unheated basements and outdoor hose bibbs.
How to Prevent Frozen Pipes
If you have uninsulated pipes and deep freeze conditions are fast approaching, there are a few tricks you can employ to prevent disaster.
One of the simplest and most reliable strategies is to run a continuous trickle of water from the fixture farthest from the water main. If this is a fixture with separate handles for hot and cold, both valves should be slightly open. The stream of water doesn’t need to be thicker than the lead in a pencil. If the farthest fixture is an outdoor spigot, be careful — it will leave a patch of ice on the ground.
You can also improvise some short-term pipe insulation from materials like crumpled up newspapers or towels. This isn’t effective as foam insulation, but it’s better than nothing. And if your local hardware store sells “heat tape” or thermostatically controlled heating cables designed for plumbing, you can use those products to get through temporary freezes. Just be sure to read and follow the directions carefully to minimize the risk of accidental fire.
If your pipes do freeze, you might become aware of the problem when you turn the faucet handle and nothing comes out. At this point, you can’t be certain that a pipe break hasn’t already occurred, so you should immediately set to work inspecting and thawing your pipes.
How to Thaw Frozen Pipes
1. Open the faucet valves. Start by opening the faucet valves on all your frozen water lines, which will help clear out accumulated ice once you get things flowing. Be prepared to shut off your main water valve immediately if you discover a broken pipe.
2. Inspect your pipes. Inspect the accessible water pipes outside and inside your home, starting with any uninsulated pipes in unheated areas. If you find a section of pipe with condensation or frost on the outside, that’s an indication of ice inside. You can also feel the pipes with your bare hands to search for spots that feel colder than others.
3. Thaw safely. Once you think you’ve found your ice blockage, you need to thaw the pipe. There are two critical safety rules for this step: never use an open flame to thaw a pipe, and never use electrical devices near standing or running water.
Hair dryers, space heaters, heat lamps and even electric blankets are all effective tools for safely thawing frozen pipes. If you still have access to hot water, you can also wrap a hot, wet towel around the frozen section.
4. Run water. After restoring the flow, keep the faucets trickling until temperatures rise, and be vigilant for signs of leaks. If you think there’s a leak but you can’t find it, shut off your main water valve and take note of your water meter reading. After an hour or so, check the reading again. If it’s higher, you have a leak, and it’s time to call a plumber.
Check out more weather preparation tips at the Live Brighter Blog!