If you’ve ever had your pipes burst in the winter, you already know it can be devastating to your home. Far beyond the cost of replacing the pipes is the expense and heartache of restoring or replacing structures and personal belongings damaged by the deluge. If you haven’t yet been among one of the 250,000 people each year to suffer the consequences of frozen pipes, consider yourself blessed!
Why Do Pipes Burst?
Pipes can burst when the water inside of them drops below freezing. As you probably learned in science class as a kid, water expands when it freezes, which is a big problem if it’s in an enclosed space with nowhere to go. However, most breaks don’t occur where the ice forms. Instead, the pipe usually ruptures between the ice and your faucet. The ice expands, pushing the water toward the faucet, but because the faucet is closed, the water has nowhere to go. The pressure builds up until BAM! Soon, water begins to gush out, soaking your floors, walls, carpeting, furniture, and family heirlooms.
Fortunately, you can prevent your pipes from bursting in the future by taking a few simple steps.
Keep in mind, that while plastic PVC or PEX piping is used in new construction for indoor plumbing, copper piping is still used in interior walls, especially connecting to water heaters, in areas be vulnerable to freezing.
Preventing Frozen Pipes
- Insulate your pipes. Many newer homes have their pipes securely concealed within insulated walls and floors. If you have exposed pipes in your home, though, be sure to wrap them with electrical heating tape or rubber insulation. Then cover their entire length with a sheet of fiberglass insulation for good measure. These inexpensive items can all be purchased at your local hardware store.
- Turn off your water. If you plan to be away from home for more than a day — or even overnight during a brutal cold spell—shut off your home’s water at the main valve and bleed your pipes dry by opening your faucets until they are empty. The minimal amount of water left in your pipes won’t be able to expand enough to cause a break.
- Leave your heat up. Many people try to save money by lowering the temperature in their homes while they are out or turning off the heat in unused rooms. These are excellent strategies for saving money and energy, but don’t take them too far. Turning your heat down much below the upper 50s can be a recipe for trouble. Remember that the thermostat measures the temperature in a specific room. Outlying areas of your home—especially unheated rooms, closets, and crawl spaces — can be much colder than that. If you know an unused room has water pipes traveling through it, don’t seal it off. Open the door and allow the heat to circulate inside.
- Open your cabinet doors. Most kitchen plumbing abuts outside walls, which can be very cold. To keep the temperature up, open up the cabinet doors beneath your sink. Likewise, if your bath or shower pipes are accessible through a closet, keep this door open at night or when you aren’t home.
- Let your faucets drip. You may have heard that, if you let your faucets drip in the wintertime, the movement of the water will prevent your pipes from freezing. This is not strictly true. Even a roaring river will freeze if the temperature is cold enough, and a little drip in your faucets won’t make much difference one way or the other. But, if you are worried that your pipes may freeze on a particularly cold night, and you don’t have time to insulate, leaving your faucets open a little bit can prevent your pipes from bursting by relieving the pressure inside the pipe. Of course, this option wastes water and money and should be used only as a last resort.
If you do find that your pipes have frozen, but haven’t yet burst, you can try to thaw them with a hairdryer. Open up your tap and continue blowing hot air along the length of the pipe until the water starts flowing again. Never use a lighter or other open flame to heat a frozen pipe! If the hairdryer doesn’t work, call a plumber.
Jaime McLeod is a longtime journalist who has written for a wide variety of newspapers, magazines, and websites, including MTV.com. She enjoys the outdoors, growing and eating organic food, and is interested in all aspects of natural wellness.