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If your pipes freeze during periods of cold weather, they can burst, causing thousands of dollars in water damage to your home. Preventing frozen pipes that can result in costly water damage is a way to avoid this common cause of insurance claims during winter months. If you are a homeowner or rental property owner, read on to learn how you can prevent frozen pipes and save yourself unnecessary headaches and large expenses.

preventing frozen pipes

Why Pipes Freeze

Pipes freeze when the ambient temperature around them becomes too low. It’s not just outside pipes like the one you connect your garden hose to that can freeze. Indoor pipes can freeze as well. When the water in your pipes freezes, it expands and the ice occupies more space in the pipe than liquid water. Eventually, the pipe can’t contain the ice and it bursts or breaks apart. If you’re lucky, this will only result in a leak or steady drip, but the possibility exists for the pipe to completely rupture, spewing water into your home.

There are multiple reasons why the pipes in your home might freeze even if the actual temperature around them hasn’t hit 32 degrees Fahrenheit or below. One of the most common causes of frozen pipes is lack of insulation, either around the pipe itself or in the room housing the pipe. Attics, basements, and garages are all common places to see frozen and burst pipes.

Other causes of frozen pipes include:

  • Vacation or seasonal homes left unoccupied
  • Turning the heat down too low or complete lack of heat
  • Leaving garden hoses and other outside tools attached to exterior spigots during winter
  • High wind chill factor
  • Pipes located close to exterior walls, ceilings, and floors
  • Leaving the garage door open
  • Letting pipes go unused for a long period of time without running the water during winter
  • Holes or cracks in the walls or flooring around pipes
  • Pipes that run through the exterior of the home where it is uninsulated, such as a crawl space beneath the floor
  • Cold snaps in warm climates that rarely experience freezing or cold temperatures

Signs of Frozen Pipes

Anytime you experience freezing temperatures, you should be vigilant for frozen pipes. But how do you know if you have a frozen pipe before it bursts? There are some common telltale signs of a frozen pipe.

Visible frost on the pipe

If you can see frost on your pipe that resembles the frost you see in your yard or inside your freezer, the pipe is likely to be at least partially if not fully frozen.

No water coming out of the pipe

This is usually how most homeowners discover a frozen pipe. No water is coming out of the pipe because it is blocked by ice.

Strange smells emanating from a faucet or drain

When a faucet or drain becomes blocked by ice in a frozen pipe, gases and smells that normally escape the other direction cannot do so and are forced into the room where you notice their unpleasant odor.

A dishwasher that won’t drain

If you find water accumulating in the bottom of your dishwasher after you run it, indicating it’s not draining properly, it could be that the pipe through which water drains out of the appliance is blocked with ice.

Dirty dishes in the dishwasher

If after running your dishwasher, the dishes are all still dirty, it may be because a frozen pipe is preventing water from reaching the interior of the appliance. Other clues that a pipe supplying water to your dishwasher is blocked with ice include undissolved dishwasher detergent and no sound of running water when you operate the machine.

Clothes washer that seems to be malfunctioning

Just like the scenarios with the dishwasher described above, if a pipe that supplies water to your clothes washer or allows it to drain is frozen, your clothing will not get clean, the soap may still be present in the drum, or you may find water accumulating in the bottom of the machine that never spins out. It could even overflow.

frozen pipes

Preventing Frozen Pipes

Preventing frozen pipes isn’t all that difficult but it does require a bit of forethought. It’s best if you can put together a strategy before the winter time so you never have to deal with the type of catastrophe that can result from a frozen pipe.

In the fall, take a walk around your house, making note of any places that either have poor insulation in the walls or pipes that may be exposed to cold air. In addition to attics, basements, and garages, common places where pipes may freeze include under sinks and in cabinets and behind appliances like your dishwasher or refrigerator, where again the pipes are close to an exterior wall and don’t receive the benefit of the room’s warm air.

Wherever possible, you want to insulate pipes in the coldest areas of your house, whether that’s in colder spaces with less insulation or pipes that run close to exterior walls in other areas of the home. For most people, insulating pipes is a fairly simple do-it-yourself job.

You can purchase pipe insulation material that looks similar to a swimming pool noodle for a very inexpensive price at hardware stores, home stores, and plumbing supply stores. Follow the directions that come with the material, which usually entails cutting the insulation to the proper length and wrapping it around the pipe you want to protect. For tricky areas, there is also an insulating tape that allows you to cover bends and turns more easily and provides insulation in very narrow spaces.

While it’s certainly a bigger job, you could also improve the insulation in the rooms that house vulnerable pipes. Although this is more costly and time-consuming, in addition to protecting your pipes, it can lower your utility bills and make those areas of your home more comfortable to be in.

Don’t forget to seal up any holes or breaches in the wall or floor around your pipes that could be letting in cold wintry air and causing pipes to freeze. There are a variety of materials you can find to accomplish this, or you can ask a handyman to take care of it in a few hours’ time.

Get in the habit of closing your garage door. Ask kids in the house as well as any regular workers who come and go to be sure the door is lowered whenever they leave. Even if this seems like a nuisance, it’s far less of a bother than having to deal with the damage from a burst pipe. If your garage is particularly cold even with the door shut, consider adding an insulated garage door. Like adding insulation to other areas of your house, this can reduce your total heating bill while also preventing freezing pipes.

On very cold days, open cabinet doors under your sink in the kitchen or bathroom to allow the heat in the room to warm the space and keep the pipes there from freezing. Sometimes adding a small space heater at the floor level can help.

Don’t let the heat in your house drop too low. Of course, everyone wants to save money on their heating bills, but if you lower the thermostat too much, you risk letting your pipes freeze. Avoid highs and lows in the temperature by setting the thermostat at a comfortable level in between and maintaining it there. Resist the urge to drastically lower the thermostat when you leave the home or go to bed at night, which is when temperatures are typically at their lowest.

Especially if you have pipes that have frozen before, you can also try leaving the water dripping slightly on the coldest days of the year. Having a small amount of constantly running water in the pipes makes it harder for it to freeze. However, if you consistently have problems with plumbing, it may be time to replace some of your pipes.

If you have a vacation home or second home that you only use some of the time, never allow it to go completely unheated during the winter months. Keep your heat on slightly, not lower than 55 degrees Fahrenheit, unless you can completely drain the pipes and shut off the water supply to the home. If the water remains on, it’s a good idea for you or someone else to check the home periodically and make sure none of the pipes are frozen.

At the end of the autumn before freezing temperatures set in, be sure to disconnect any garden hoses or other appliances like portable sinks from the water supply on the exterior of your home. You can also protect outside spigots by wrapping them in insulating material just like you would indoor pipes.

If you’re still not sure whether you have exposed pipes in your home, if you can’t reach pipes inside the wall, or if you suspect pipes behind your dishwasher or refrigerator might be at risk, call a professional plumber. A plumbing professional can make sure all your pipes are properly insulated and offer strategies for reducing the danger of burst pipes.

In Case of Emergency

At the first signs of any frozen pipes in your home, you’ll want to take steps to resolve the issue right away. Call a plumber immediately to take care of the situation. There are a few easy fixes that you may be able to do if the pipe is easily accessible and you’re confident you can access the blockage. However, if you can’t unfreeze the pipe, it could burst and flood your home with water.

Know where the shut-off valve is for your home’s water supply, and turn off the water until a plumber arrives. Always err on the side of caution when it comes to frozen pipes.

If you have questions about preventing frozen pipes, if you need help insulating your pipes, or if you have a frozen pipe or another plumbing emergency, contact San Diego Pipelining today. We can help you prevent water damage and deal with plumbing situations immediately to protect your home.