When temperatures remain below freezing for extended hours, exposed pipes can be at risk of cracking or shattering, leaving homeowners faced with high plumber charges, no water for an extended period of time or potentially interior water damage. The key to protecting your pipes is to keep the cold wind and air off of them.
When water freezes, it expands. That’s why a can of soda explodes if it’s put into a freezer to chill quickly and forgotten. When water freezes in a pipe, it expands the same way. If it expands enough, the pipe bursts, water escapes and serious damage results.
But it’s not the actual ice expansion that causes the source of the leak.
Surprisingly, ice forming in a pipe does not typically cause a break where the ice blockage occurs. It’s not the radial expansion of ice against the wall of the pipe that causes the break. Rather, it is the pressure from the unfrozen water between the ice and the closed faucet that is the primary cause of ruptures. It’s this increase in water pressure that leads to pipe failure. Usually the pipe bursts where little or no ice has formed.
The actual temperature outside obviously has a large impact on whether the water will freeze or not. Wind chill, however, is an even bigger culprit. Research at the University of Illinois has shown that wind chill, the cooling effect of air and wind that causes the human body to lose heat, can play a major role in accelerating ice blockage, and thus bursting, in water pipes. The key to protecting your pipes is to keep the cold wind and air off of them.
Pipes in attics, crawl spaces and outside walls are all vulnerable to freezing, especially if there are cracks or openings that allow cold, outside air to flow across the pipes. Holes in an outside wall where television, cable or telephone lines enter can provide access for cold air to reach pipes. The size of pipes and their composition (e.g., copper or PVC) have some bearing on how fast ice forms, but they are relatively minor factors in pipe bursting compared with the absence of heat, pipe insulation and exposure to a flow of subfreezing air.
Preventing Water Damage from Pipe Bursts
There are a few basic steps to preventing your pipes from rupturing and causing water damage to the inside of your home. Most people know that turning your faucets on to a slow stream can help mitigate the problem. But it’s important to understand why that is. The common thought is that the moving water will be harder to freeze. The truth is, opening a faucet will provide relief from the excessive pressure that builds between the faucet and the ice blockage when freezing occurs. If there is no excessive water pressure, there is no burst pipe, even if the water inside the pipe freezes.
You don’t need a steady stream of water; even the slowest drip at normal pressure will provide pressure relief when needed. Where both hot and cold lines serve a spigot, make sure each one contributes to the drip, since both are subjected to freezing. If the dripping stops, leave the faucet(s) open, since a pipe may have frozen and will still need pressure relief. More information can be found at the Institute for Business and Home Safety.
You should also be sure to open any cabinets below sinks to allow warmer air to surround those pipes. Prior to freezing weather, insulate pipes using easy to install and inexpensive insulating foam tubing. If you normally set your thermostat back at night, set the thermostat a few degrees higher until the severe freeze is over.
If You’re Going Out of Town
When away from the house for an extended period during the winter, be careful how much you lower the heat. A lower temperature may save on the heating bill, but there could be a disaster if a cold spell strikes and pipes that normally would be safe, freeze and burst.
A solution is to drain the water system. This is the best safeguard. With no water in the pipes, there is no freezing. This remedy should be considered even when the homeowner is not leaving but is concerned about a serious overnight freeze.
To drain the system, shut off the main valve and turn on every water fixture (both hot and cold lines) until water stops running. It’s not necessary to leave the fixtures open, since the system is filled mostly with air at that point and not subject to freezing. When returning to the house, turn on the main valve and let each fixture run until the pipes are full again.
If You Suspect A Frozen Pipe
If you open a faucet and no water comes out, don’t take any chances; call a plumber. There are several ways you can attempt to thaw your pipes, though safety should be a priority. Don’t try to thaw a frozen pipe with an open flame; as this will damage the pipe and may even start a building fire. You might be able to thaw a pipe with a hand-held hair dryer. Slowly apply heat, starting close to the faucet end of the pipe, with the faucet open. Work toward the coldest section. Don’t use electrical appliances while standing in water; you could get electrocuted.
There are other items like electric pipe heating cables although you need to use these with caution as well. It may be better to find one that has a built-in thermostat that can turn itself on and off when needed. Whereas, one that does not shut off automatically could be forgotten about. A relatively safe and effective method is to wrap towels around the frozen section of pipe and pour hot water over the wrapped area.
If a pipe bursts, immediately shut of the water at the main shut-off valve. If you have water damage to your home, you need to call an emergency damage restoration company like ourselves immediately. You’ll of course need to contact your insurance company as well, and we can easily work with them to process the claim and restore your home back to its original condition.
January 2014 has been a winter for the record books. Above all, stay warm and safe.