By Mary Boone
When temperatures plummet and pipes freeze, you’re looking at more than just a simple inconvenience.
Each winter more than a quarter million U.S. families have their homes destroyed and their lives disrupted by frozen pipes. That’s because the frozen water doesn’t just stop flowing through pipes — it actually expands and can cause pipes to crack or burst. An eighth-inch crack in a pipe can leak up to 250 gallons of water per day. That unexpected, unwelcome flood can ruin floors, furnishings, appliances and valuables. A few examples:
• A 2007 cold snap wreaked havoc on the Charter Oak United Methodist Church in southwest Pennsylvania. A frozen pipe caused the building’s sprinklers to go off. The leak damaged the ceilings throughout the newly constructed church and destroyed its carpeting and audio-visual equipment.
• A Reno-area woman had been trying to sell her late mother's home in December 2008, when the mercury dropped. A pipe in the home froze and burst, ruining walls, carpets and furniture. The hard-to-sell property became an impossible-to-sell property.
• A mobile home in Lawrence, KS was destroyed in early 2011 when a homeowner tried to use an open flame to thaw frozen pipes. A family of six was forced to take up residence in a homeless shelter.
• A February 2011 cold spell in Albuquerque did extensive damage on the University of New Mexico campus. A water pipe in a visiting artist apartment broke and flooded onto the presses below. At least a dozen water leaks popped up in residence halls, and a pipe broke underground between two academic buildings. The Student Union Building suffered damage as did the restrooms at the university’s football stadium.
Oftentimes pipes burst while families are away for a few days. Homeowners turn down the thermostat in an effort to save money, not thinking about the damage that could await them when they return. If they’re gone long, the water damage can quickly turn to mold damage.
The good news is that a few simple precautions can protect your home:
Before winter arrives
Insulate pipes in your crawl space and attic. These exposed pipes are especially susceptible to freezing. Pipe insulation cannot prevent water from freezing in pipes, but it can increase the time required for freezing to occur.
Heat tape or heat cables can be used to wrap pipes. Use these products only for their intended use (interior or exterior), and follow the manufacturer’s instructions for installation and use.
Seal leaks that allow cold air inside, especially near pipes. Double-check around electrical wiring, dryer vents and pipes. Caulk or insulation can work wonders when it comes to keeping cold air out and warm air in.
Disconnect garden hoses. If the faucet drips even a small amount, it will eventually fill the hose near the faucet, the faucet and the span of hose just inside the house. When temperatures drop that water will freeze and damage will result.
When temperatures drop
Let a trickle of water run from indoor faucets located along exterior walls. This dripping water provides 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.
Also, open cabinet doors to allow heat to get to pipes under sinks along exterior walls.
If pipes freeze
If, despite your best efforts, your water pipes do freeze, turn off the water at your home’s main shut-off valve and call a plumber.
You may be able to thaw a frozen pipe with the warm air from a hairdryer. Start by aiming the air at the part of the pipe closest to the faucet and move toward the coldest span of pipe. Never, ever use a torch or other open flame to attempt to thaw a pipe.