You have every reason to be concerned about bursting pipes during cold temperatures. At best, a pipe will burst when you’re at home, awake, and able to respond … at worst, a pipe will burst when you’re asleep or away from home for an extended period of time. It’s not a risk you want to take either way. In less than an hour, burst pipes can result in thousands of dollars’ worth of damage.
Water is one of the most destructive forces known to man. A burst pipe always carries the potential of flooding, which can easily destroy entire floors of your house. As if ruined belongings weren’t bad enough, just think about all the soaked framework, paneling, drywall, carpet, flooring, and maybe even ceiling you’ll have to replace as well. Insurance might save you the money, but it can’t save you the time or headache.
It goes without saying that water starts freezing when temperatures get cold enough. But why do pipes sometimes burst if the water inside them freezes? There are two potential reasons, actually. The first is the fact that water expands when it freezes. If enough water freezes in a section of pipe, sooner or later that pipe will have to give way to the expanding ice.
The second reason is due to the resulting increase in pressure. Ice doesn’t always expand and break the pipe itself. Sometimes it expands lengthwise along the pipe, putting more and more pressure on any water not yet frozen. Because liquids don’t compress very well, the pressure is redirected against any weaknesses in the pipe, ultimately resulting in a break or burst.
You can’t prevent a problem without taking action, and you can’t take action until you find at-risk pipes. Any pipe exposed to freezing temperatures is at risk. As temperatures start sinking below 20˚F, that risk starts to grow exponentially. If a pipe is exposed to such temperatures and is not insulated, it is an at-risk pipe.
Finding at-risk pipes isn’t difficult. Any plumbing situated within the warmest rooms in your house is probably fine. Why? In order for that room to be one of the warmest in your house, it has to be well insulated. It’s unlikely that water will freeze in pipes running within well-insulated walls.
The colder areas of your house (and garage) are a different story. Which areas of your house are the coldest? Go to those areas and look at all plumbing. Trace any pipes you can, as well as where they lead. If the pipes you can see are uninsulated, or if the walls themselves are poorly insulated, then you’ve discovered your at-risk pipes!
By following this common sense approach based on simple temperature differences, you can discover which areas of your house are most susceptible to freezing pipe problems and begin taking preventive action.
Adding wall insulation or foam pipe insulation are the most effective ways to reduce the likelihood of freezing pipes. There’s nothing better than quality insulation to reduce the impact of freezing temperatures, especially around pipes inside the outer wall of your home.
Like insulation, heat tape can be used to reduce a pipe’s exposure to cold temperatures. Due to the nature of tape, it’s best to use this solution on visible pipes only, because it has to be wrapped around them and then plugged into a receptacle.
If you cannot use insulation or heat tape, the next best thing is to purposefully let at-risk pipes drip continuously. This helps keep water moving (albeit extremely slowly), but more importantly, it provides an escape for increased pressure. Even a tiny drip can be effective and is much better than nothing!
If you can’t insulate and would rather not let your faucet drip, consider shutting down that section of plumbing for the winter months. It might be inconvenient, but a pipe filled with air won’t freeze like a pipe filled with water, which could save your home from disaster.
This is probably the most expensive solution, but sometimes it’s the only option. In select cases, you can have a plumber reroute your plumbing away from the colder areas of your house, thereby removing the very presence of at-risk pipes. This preventive measure is best used as a last resort.
Following these preventive measures will lessen the chance of the dreaded burst-pipe scenario. For more information or for help prepping your plumbing for the cold winter months, contact a professional plumber.