Simple elementary school science teaches us that water expands when it freezes. When this happens inside the pipes and plumbing in your home, you can have a serious grown-up problem. If a pipe bursts because of freezing, once the water starts flowing again, a crack as small as 1/8th of an inch can drench your home with over 250 gallons of water. There are preventative measures you can take, though, to keep from being one of the one quarter a million people in the United States who suffer from the results of burst pipes each year.
Before we get into the specifics of preventing a frozen pipe, let’s have a little science class:
What Causes a Pipe to Burst
Interestingly, a pipe usually doesn’t break at the spot where the ice blockage occurs. It isn’t the expansion of the frozen water against the pipe that causes the break. Instead, when a complete ice blockage happens inside a pipe, the ice dam will continue to increase its freezing and expansion, which causes water pressure to increase downstream between the ice blockage and the closed faucet at the end of the plumbing system. It is the build-up of water pressure that brings about the pipe failure. On the side of the ice dam farthest from the faucet, the water can retreat to its source.
The preventative measures you can take to eliminate or reduce the possibility of a burst pipe starts with figuring out if and where your plumbing system is at risk.
Assess the Vulnerability of Your Plumbing System
- Analyze the location of your plumbing. Bathrooms, kitchens and utility rooms placed on interior walls are going to have plumbing that is more protected against freezing.
- Explore for plumbing placed in areas of your home that are unheated (attics, crawl spaces, or under outside porches or decks).
- Insulation may be present in the unheated part of your home. If plumbing is located there, is the plumbing pipe sandwiched between the layer of insulation and the interior of the home? This would be good news. Your plumbing will be getting a least a little bit of the radiant heat from your home. The insulation will reduce the amount of heat that escapes, keeping the pipes warmer and less likely to produce an ice jam.
- Figure out if your home has insulation in the outside walls. One way to check for this is to unscrew the cover plate from an electrical socket. You might be able to see insulation from this opening.
- Look for cracks in the foundation, eaves, or walls close to your plumbing system where air can have a chance to flow over the pipes. Un-insulated pipes will begin to freeze when the outside temperature reaches 20 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. Keep in mind the idea of wind chill, though. Your pipes can be adversely affected by air flowing over them and can freeze, even if the temperature is above freezing. Liken it to a 40 degree day that feels like 10 degrees because the wind is blowing.
Fix the Issues
- If you have found that there is no insulation in the outside walls, you can hire a company to blow in insulation.
- If you have found pipes in unheated areas, cover them with insulation, or wrap them with heat tape or thermostatically controlled heat cables. Just be sure to only use products that have the approval of an independent testing company, like Underwriters Laboratories and make sure to match the use (interior or exterior) as indicated on the packaging.
- Seal any leaks that you have found with chalk or insulation.
If you didn’t have time to do a permanent remedy, yet.
- In areas of your plumbing system that you know are vulnerable to freezing, let the water drip at the faucet. While this won’t keep the pipes from freezing, it will prevent the pressure build-up that causes pipes to burst.
- Open up the doors in the cabinets under your bathroom and kitchen sinks. This will allow the warm air from the room to warm the pipes.
What to do if your pipes do freeze
- Keep in mind that just because the pipe has frozen, that doesn’t mean, it has burst.
- Make sure to turn on your warm water faucet. If nothing comes out, consider calling a plumber, waiting it out or thawing the ice jam yourself.
- Do not try to thaw a pipe with a torch or other open flame. The fire hazard is too great.
- If you can reach the pipes, you can use the high setting of a hair dryer to thaw the ice jam. Start warming the pipe where it is closest to the faucet and work your way toward the coldest part of the pipe. Make sure that the faucet is turned on, so that the melting ice has a place to safely escape.
- If you see standing water or hear the trickling of water within your walls, a pipe has likely broken. Turn off the water at the main shutoff but leave the water faucets turned on and call a plumber.
Luckily, an ounce of prevention will save you a couple hundred gallons of spewing water. Remember Barker, Beck, Collins & Kronauge is here to serve you with “Trusted Advice and Reliable Solutions”.