Do you spend all winter with the specter of frozen water lines hovering over you? Frozen pipes are a serious risk once the weather gets colder. When pipes burst, the damage is usually significant and costly to repair.
The good news is that you can learn to identify the warning signs and take steps to prevent frozen and burst pipes this winter.
But what causes pipes to burst in the first place?
Why Pipes Burst
As water freezes, it expands. However, the expansion usually isn’t the direct cause of burst pipes. Instead, the ice forms a plug that increases the water pressure. The burst usually occurs when that water pressure locates a weak spot, which could be nowhere near where the ice forms.
So what causes the water to freeze? A major reason is an unfortunate intersection between cold weather and insufficient insulation. In Northern and Midwestern regions of the United States, that’s most likely to occur when temperatures drop extremely low and the building has an unpatched hole in the insulation. In the Southeast and Southwest, pipes are more likely to burst due to exposure during a sudden cold snap.
Warning Signs and Dangers of Frozen Pipes
Knowing why pipes freeze gives you an idea of when you might encounter them yourself. So what are the dangers of frozen pipes? And what are the warning signs that can let you head off the threat?
A burst pipe could leave you without running water until you can get it replaced. Depending on where the rupture is and what else uses that branch of the plumbing, that could mean no water for toilets, bathing or cooking. In the case of a widespread winter storm, you may have to survive without running water for days to weeks.
More severely, a frozen pipe bursting will almost certainly result in some level of water damage. In addition to the initial damage, cleanup and restoration will be disruptive and costly. If the water isn’t properly cleaned and dried, you also run the risk of mold developing. Mold is a particular concern when pipes burst inside a wall, ceiling or another spot that’s difficult for you to access. Mold remediation will be another lengthy and expensive process if water damage is not fully addressed.
The Warning Signs
Luckily, spotting some warning signs can help you avoid extensive burst pipe damages:
No or low water pressure: When you turn on the faucet in cold weather, if no water — or significantly less water than you expect — comes out, it’s time to check the pipes. Testing all of the faucets can help you narrow down which pipe might have frozen or if more than one might need attention.
A strong smell from the drain: If you notice a strong, unpleasant smell coming from the drain, that means that there’s a block somewhere in the pipe. Check for frozen spots before trying other block-removal techniques.
Visible frost: This is an obvious sign, but it requires you to have access to the pipes to check. If you spot any exposed water pipes that have frosted over, it’s time to start thawing.
Water damage: If a frozen pipe has begun to burst but only developed a minor leak so far, there may still be time to thaw the pipe even if there’s already been some water damage. Watch for bubbling or peeling paint, musty odors and sounds of running or trickling water.
5 Tips for Preventing Frozen Pipes
You’ve learned the risks and the warning signs, and you’re ready to keep a careful eye on your plumbing. Still, you’d rather prevent the pipes from freezing in the first place instead of trying to thaw them out before they burst. Here are a few tips for keeping your pipes safe in winter weather.
1. Prepare Your Outdoor Pipes
The earliest preventative measure you can take is to prepare your outdoor pipes in the autumn.
Disconnect your garden hose and completely drain any outside faucets. If they have cut-off valves, close those as well. The pressure that causes a burst pipe builds up between the ice and the tap, so you want to make sure there’s no water there to cause an issue.
If you’re expecting especially cold weather, or if you just want to err on the side of caution, you can use faucet covers. The insulation will act as an extra layer of protection.
2. Turn up the Heat
One of the best things that you can do for your interior plumbing is to keep your thermostat set to the same temperature day and night. It can be tempting to save a little on the utility bill by lowering the temperature when you aren’t at home or by bundling up under extra covers at night. Your pipes will thank you, though, if they’re warm enough to keep the water running smoothly.
If you do turn the thermostat down while you’re away, be sure you set it to at least 55.
3. Keep the Cold Out
Keeping the thermostat running warm is only half the battle. The cold outside air will take any chance it can get to sneak inside, so it’s important to have everything sealed up tight.
When the temperature drops, make sure to keep the garage door closed unless you’re actively going in or out. Check the weather stripping around the doors, and replace if you notice obvious signs of wear — a solid seal will help keep out drafts and save on energy costs.
There may be areas in your home that receive less heat, like basements, crawl spaces and attics. For pipes there and in any unheated exterior walls, you can add sleeve-style pipe insulation to prevent freezing.
4. Let the Warmth In
Sometimes you can balance the heat distribution in your home simply by encouraging better airflow. Pipes inside closets, pantries or cabinets are closed off from the vents blowing warm air throughout the rest of the house. Leave the doors to those areas open, especially if you’ll be away, so that the temperature can equalize and warm air can reach the pipes.
It’s also vital to stay on top of your furnace and duct maintenance. Naturally, you’ll want to be sure that your furnace is in proper working order before temperatures start to drop. Remember to clean your ductwork as well — your furnace may be working perfectly, but dirty ducts will limit airflow.
5. Be Aware
Awareness is your best tool when it comes to preventing frozen pipes this winter.
Pay close attention to the weather and watch for any warning signs that your pipes may have started freezing. If the temperature dips well below 32 — when water begins to freeze — turn all of your indoor faucets on to run a small drip of water while you’re away during the day or at night.
If you plan to be away for more than a few days, remember to set your thermostat to 55 or higher. If you can, ask a friend or neighbor to check in occasionally to run your taps, flush toilets and make sure that everything is still as it should be.
Contact Dick Ray Master Plumber Today
If your pipes have frozen and you’re not sure what to do, Dick Ray Master Plumber can help. We’ve been in business since 1949, and we can fix your plumbing whether your house is new or old. Our Trindel electric pipe thawers can defrost frozen pipes even when they’re inside your walls or ceilings. We’ll also make sure they’re protected against future freezes.
We offer services in Leawood, Overland Park and Prairie Village, as well as throughout the Kansas City, KS, area. Schedule your appointment today by filling out our online form or calling us at 913-888-0550.