December 2, 2019

In the low temperatures of winter, your pipes are in danger due to the water inside freezing and expanding.  This increase in volume puts extreme pressure on your pipes, which can cause them to burst and leading to unexpected repairs.  Pipes most vulnerable to freezing are pipes exposed to severe cold weather, such as outdoor hose, sprinkler and swimming pool lines.  This also includes indoor water supply lines that are in unheated areas, such as basements/crawl spaces, attics, garages or under kitchen sinks; and pipes that run along exterior walls with little or no insulation. Being prepared means knowing which pipes are most vulnerable to freezing and how to prevent this from happening in the first place To help you get started, we are going to cover the most important things you need to do to keep your pipes safe for winter:

How to avoid low-temperature complications

The best way to keep your pipes safe during winter days with especially low temperatures is to insulate them. Be sure to close outside doors and windows, and fill cracks in walls and around windows to eliminate cold drafts near water pipes.  By heating up the pipes locally, you can avoid fissures, breaks, and other worse complications. You can use heater tapes, which are very easy to apply.  UL-certified tapes come with a thermostat so that you can control the temperature on your pipes at all times. A solid alternative to tape is using special rubber insulation material. Make sure that you don't leave any gaps between the different pieces of rubber and use duct tape to secure them and to keep them dry.

Make sure to apply insulation to the valves as well, especially to gate valves, which are particularly prone to low-temperature complications. These have a disc or a wedge inside that has to move up and down and due to extreme cold, this can get stuck. Keeping gate valves at a constant temperature will prevent this from happening even in the coldest days of winter. 

Keep your pipes dry in extreme temperatures

Even if you won't be using the house, you still need to take care of the pipes during winter. The best way to avoid any complication is to drain your water pipes. This way, there will be no water inside that can freeze can cause problems. This is also a good emergency solution for nights when the temperatures get especially low (below minus 20 degrees Fahrenheit).

To drain your pipes, the first thing you have to do is to locate the central cut-off valve or gate valve. You will also need a water cut-off key. Once you have everything ready, open all the faucets in your house and then turn the main supply valve off. If everything goes well, in a couple of minutes, there will be no more water coming out of the faucets. If there is still water coming out, just tighten the cut-off valve.

Seal all rim joists closely

If you have space around your pipes, then they will be more exposed to the cold. You have to seal off any cracks and holes with expandable foam to make sure that you don't have problem areas in your piping. These exposed areas are prone to bursting because the insulation is less efficient. The best way to prevent that is by sealing up the space around the pipes.

Take care of your pipes from indoors as well

There are a few more things you can do to keep your pipes safe and you can do them without getting out of the house. Be sure to close outside doors and windows, and fill cracks in walls and around windows to eliminate cold drafts near water pipes.  Open the doors to all the cabinets where you have plumbing, like your kitchen, for instance. This will ensure warm airflow to the pipes from the inside. Keep the doors open overnight to reduce the influence of the outdoor temperatures.

Another thing is keeping a steady temperature in your home, especially during very cold periods. Install a thermostat and keep the temperature in your home steady. You might be tempted to turn off the heating entirely while you are away at work, but that might be damaging for your pipes.  Keep in mind that if you plan to be away during cold weather, leave the heat set to a temperature no lower than 55°F.

If you are concerned with frozen pipes or a frozen meter, contact the Local Water Authority to see what recommendations they have.  Sometimes it is recommended leave a small stream of water running at the faucet farthest from the water source or next to an outside wall during periods of sub‐freezing winter temperatures.  The cost of the water used will be substantially less than the cost of repair work.

By insulating your pipes, sealing up any holes around them, and keeping them warm from the inside, you won't have to deal with burst pipes. Keep in mind that even unused pipes have to be taken care of to avoid unwanted accidents, so make sure you find out where your cut-off valve is located.

Utility companies often have programs to help with home performance improvements which address these types of comfort concerns.  An energy auditor who is BPI Certified can provide recommendations to enable the many systems within your house to function well together and prepare your pipes for winter.

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Tanya Mayer, Guest Poster

Tanya is a writer and mom of two boys. She enjoys spending time with her husband and kids. You can reach her at mayert685@gmail.com.