How can I prevent frozen pipes in my house?

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When frozen, water expands—and that's a dangerous situation for your pipes and, by extension, your home. Conventional wisdom tells us that this water expansion causes pipes to burst. But going beyond that, expert William B. Rose, senior researcher at the Illinois Sustainable Technology Center, was quoted in the New York Times last week as describing this phenomenon differently. He said that the frozen blockage grows along the length of the pipe and acts like a piston, creating high water pressure that causes the pipe to burst when the faucet is turned off.

What's the answer? No matter the explanation, as temperatures drop below freezing, your home’s pipes are at risk for bursting, especially if you don’t take any preventive action. Pipes that are at highest risk are those exposed to severe cold temperatures: outdoor hoses, sprinkler lines, swimming pool supply lines and water pipes in interior areas that are unheated like basements, attics, garages, crawl spaces and kitchen cabinets.

Follow these steps to weather the polar vortex unscathed!

Preventive Action:

  • Drain water. If you haven’t done so already, drain water from supply lines outdoors, specifically your swimming pool and sprinkler supply lines. Make sure to follow the manufacturer’s or installer’s directions when doing so. What NOT to do? The American Red Cross recommends that you do not put antifreeze in these lines unless instructed to because it is dangerous to humans, pets, wildlife, landscaping and the environment.
  • Close indoor water valves. After draining the water from outdoor supply lines, remove and store any outdoor hoses. Close indoor valves that supply water to outdoor faucets. Drain the water from these faucets and keep the outdoor valve open so that any water in the pipe that freezes is able to expand without breaking the pipe. The experts at Roto Rooter also suggest covering outside faucets with Styrofoam insulation covers.
  • Check vulnerable pipes. Check all other pipes that are located in unheated areas of your home. Check your attic, crawl spaces, basement, kitchen and bathroom cabinets and garage. Make sure both hot and cold water pipes are insulated. Areas that are especially vulnerable are pipe elbows and Ts. Call your contractor or plumber if they're not insulated or if you're unsure whether there's enough insulation.
  • Close garage doors. If you have water supply lines inside of your garage, keep the doors closed, especially on extremely cold days.
  • Open kitchen and bathroom cabinets. This allows warm air to circulate around your pipes. However, first remove any dangerous cleaners and chemicals and place them out of the reach of children.
  • Let the faucet drip. When temperatures are really low, let warm water drip from the faucet that leads to exterior pipes. By opening the faucet you relieve water pressure, which will give any frozen water inside your pipe room to "grow" without bursting the pipe.
  • Set your thermostat. If you’re going on vacation or if you have a second home that you won’t be staying in during the winter, the National Weather Service advises homeowners to set the thermostat no lower than 55 degrees.

Preventive Installation:

  • Insulate exposed pipes. Consider installing products that will help to insulate exposed and vulnerable pipes. Products include heat tape, heat cables and a pipe sleeve. You can find these products at your local hardware store or have a professional install them for you.
  • Caulk windows near pipes. Basement and attic windows can let cool air seep into areas that are not typically heated. Caulking around the windows and sealing off any gaps will help keep your pipes from freezing.

Immediate Action:

  • Be aware of low water pressure. If your water pressure is low and only a trickle of water is coming from your faucet, it's possible you could already have a frozen pipe. Allstate Insurance suggests that homeowners check their home faucets before going to bed and as soon as you wake up during periods of extremely cold temperatures.
  • Thaw frozen pipes as quickly as possible by applying heat. To thaw the frozen pipe, keep the faucet open and find the section of the pipe that is frozen. Check to see if the pipe is cracked in the frozen area. If the pipe is cracked or you can’t find the frozen area, call in a plumber to help. If the plumbing isn’t cracked you can apply heat to the frozen area in one of the flowing ways:
    • Apply an electric heating pad to the frozen area.
    • Use an electric hair dryer to warm up the pipe.
    • Place a portable space heater by the pipe and leave it there for an hour.
    • Soak a towel in hot water and hold it against the frozen pipe.

Never use a blowtorch, kerosene or propane heater or other open flame device. The Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) warns that using such devices could lead to a house fire: The frozen pipe could conduct the heat from the open flame and ignite the wall structure. To avoid this from happening always use a UL-labeled device that verifies it's been tested for safety.

If A Pipe Bursts:

Paul Abrams of Roto Rooter says that the biggest risk from a burst pipe is water damage. When the frozen water thaws—and leaks, water can flow into your home until the main water supply valve is turned off. If a pipe burst occurs in your home:

·Close the main water valve. If a pipe bursts, you want to turn off the main water valve immediately.

  • Call in help. Call a plumber to help you fix the pipe. It’s best to have an emergency number on hand for easy access and quick help or access the TotalHousehold directory here.

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