Taking steps to prevent frozen pipes is an important home maintenance step for anyone who lives in a climate that experiences subfreezing temperatures. If you’ve weathered several winters in your home without suffering a frozen pipe, chances are good that your plumbing system is sufficiently protected. But this isn’t something to take for granted, especially if you live in a warmer climate where exterior pipe insulation isn’t the norm. If an uncharacteristically hard freeze descends and your home isn’t prepared, the water behind your hose bib or other pipes could freeze, expand and cause serious water damage.

Frozen pipes put the whole system at risk of rupture as the frozen water inside the pipe expands. In most cases, however, the freezing pipe forces pressure further down the pipe closer to the faucet, causing the pipe to burst in a place where there is no ice at all.

Not Sure if You’re Protected? Call a Plumber

Few homeowners know the layout and condition of every inch of plumbing pipe in their homes. While it’s possible to perform a DIY inspection for vulnerable lengths of pipe, there will inevitably be pipes running behind walls, beneath your feet and in other unseen areas that you can’t easily inspect.

A licensed plumber can conduct a thorough inspection to help put your mind at ease, as well as add pipe insulation or other modifications to help protect vulnerable pipes from freezing. You might consider scheduling such an inspection if you’ve recently moved into a new home in a climate that experiences freezing temperatures.

But if you want to take a look around yourself, there are a few areas to focus your attention:

  • Unfinished basements, attics and crawl spaces. If you have plumbing pipes running through these areas -- which is likely if you have an unfinished basement -- the pipes themselves are best protected with pipe insulation. You may also consider insulating the entire space to provide another layer of protection.
  • Your water heater. The location of the water heater varies from one home to another, and it’s not uncommon for water heaters to be installed in unheated areas of the home, such as an attached garage. In this case, it’s important to keep the garage door closed, and helpful to add pipe insulation and a water heater jacket.
  • Pipes running through cabinets. Most bathrooms and kitchens have at least a few inches of water supply lines hidden behind cabinet doors under the sink. If the thermostat is set very low, it could be that the air behind those cabinet doors is even colder, perhaps cold enough to cause the pipes to freeze. Leaving the cabinet doors open during extreme temperatures will allow warm air to circulate around the pipes.
  • Hose bibs and other outdoor spigots. Before freezing weather arrives, you should remove all hoses and accessories, close the valves supplying water to exterior lines, and drain any water that remains. Tying a plastic bag around a winterized hose bib is a cheap, easy way to provide a little more insulation.
  • Your lawn sprinkler system. If you have buried sprinkler pipes and live in an area that experiences freezing temperatures, it’s essential to winterize your system.
  • Swimming pool supply lines. Just like your sprinkler system, you should fully winterize your pool, including pumps and supply lines, to avoid costly damage.

How to Prevent Frozen Pipes

Even if you take reasonable precautions to protect your pipes from freezing, some unexpected events can still put them at risk. Your furnace could suddenly fail, or for people in warm climates, a freak cold snap could arrive. But even with little notice, there are ways to avert disaster.

  • Keep an eye on the weather forecast. In extremely low temperatures, you may need to take extra precautionary measures. Outdoor temperatures below 20 degrees Fahrenheit will create especially high risk for frozen pipes.
  • Maintain a minimum temperature. It may be tempting to shut the furnace off if you’re leaving town for a few days, but you should keep your thermostat set to no lower than 55 degrees to avoid pipe freezes.
  • Keep the water flowing. Ice crystals can’t form in flowing water, so in a pinch, you can keep faucets flowing with a thin stream of water to get you through the coldest hours.
  • Be prepared to shut off your main water valve. You should know where this is located and how to turn it (which may require a wrench or a water key). If your furnace fails or you experience a broken pipe, closing this valve quickly can prevent significant damage.
  • Use newspaper as a last-ditch insulation. Crumpled newspaper, secured in place with tape, makes for an adequate pipe insulation substitute.

How to Identify a Frozen Pipe

  • Visible frost on pipes. If you see visible frost on exposed pipes, there is a good chance that it is frozen.
  • Unusual odors coming from your drains or faucets. If you have a frozen pipe, this may force odors back up into your home or trap materials that cause odors in your drain.
  • No water. A lack of running water is the most common sign of a frozen pipe. If you turn on a faucet and get no water or only a small trickle, an ice block is likely to blame.

What to Do If You Have a Frozen Pipe

  • Turn on the water. As the ice begins to melt in the pipe, you will want it to be able to flow through the pipe. The running water will help melt the rest of the ice.
  • Thaw frozen pipes with a hair dryer. If you notice that a pipe is clogged with ice crystals and can locate the frozen sections, a hair dryer is a safe and effective source of heat. Once a frozen line is thawed, you should attempt to shut its main valve and drain the line to prevent it from refreezing. Never use a blowtorch or open flame to try to thaw a pipe, but you can also use a heating pad or a portable space heater.
  • If you have a frozen pipe, check for others. There might be more than one vulnerable pipe on your property, and if conditions are cold enough to freeze one pipe, they can freeze another.

A pipe break due to freezing temperatures is one of the messiest and most expensive wintertime plumbing problems. If you’re concerned about whether your home is ready, let the licensed plumbers at your local Benjamin Franklin give your plumbing system a thorough assessment. Call us today at 1-800-259-7705.

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