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How to keep your home's pipes from freezing during winter cold snaps

Whether it's an Arctic Vortex rolling south or just a cold snap, even just a few days of lower temperatures can freeze pipes that aren't well-insulated or protected from the weather. When they freeze, pipes can burst and flood your house. That moisture can lead to foundation damage if it's not discovered and repaired right away.

Frozen pipe facts by ABT Foundation SolutionsWhy do pipes burst when they freeze? According to the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IIBHS), frozen pipes usually don't break where the ice blockage forms.

"Continued freezing and expansion inside the pipe causes water pressure to increase downstream -- between the ice blockage and a closed faucet at the end," the IIBHS says in its publication, "Freeing and Bursting Pipes" (PDF).  "It’s this increase in water pressure that leads to pipe failure. Upstream from the ice blockage, the water can always retreat back towards its source, so there is no pressure build-up to cause a break."

When should homeowners be on alert that their pipes may freeze? That depends on where you live. In southern states and other areas where freezing weather is the exception rather than the rule (and where houses often do not provide adequate built-in protection), the “temperature alert threshold” is 20 degrees F.

This threshold is based upon studies conducted by the Building Research Council at the University of Illinois, according to IIBHS. Field tests of residential water systems subjected to winter temperatures demonstrated that, for uninsulated pipes installed in an unheated and uninsulated attic, pipes there started to freeze when the outside temperature fell to 20 degrees F or below.

In times of extreme cold, such as an extended visit from an Arctic vortex, even insulated or heated spaces in well-built Northern homes can drop to 20 degrees or lower if they're in the right place for the right length of time. That's why it's important to keep an eye on your crawl space, basement, garage and other places where pipes are closer to the cold.

Preventing frozen pipes

Kyle Kostelny, president of highly rated Dorenbos Plumbing in Chicago, says it’s important for homeowners to know where pipes are most exposed to cold air, according to Angie's List. These areas could need repairs if ignored.

“It’s not likely for unusual areas to freeze,” Kostelny says. “But sometimes the wind can blow just right and it can be cold enough to cause a problem.”

If you have a crawl space, ABT Foundation Solutions can seal and insulate it to keep moisture and cold air out, and keep your entire home dry. Call us at (920) 733-4228 (4ABT) or contact us online to set up an appointment.

Popular Mechanics has some suggestions for steps homeowners can take to keep pipes from freezing and bursting during cold weather.

1) Be prepared.

Know where your water shutoff is located in case a pipe breaks.

2) Turn up the thermostat.

If you live in an old house built over an uninsulated crawl space, a cold snap isn't the time to worry about your heating bill. "Turning up your thermostat will increase the air temperature in the crawlspace by projecting heat energy through the floor into the space," PM says.

3) Place a space heater.

Under the right conditions, you can keep unprotected pipes above freezing by simply placing an electric heater near them. Make sure the area is dry and free from obstructions.The goal is not to make the space toasty warm and comfortable. It's to keep the water in the pipes above freezing.

4) Open cabinet doors.

It's not unusual for plumbing running to a kitchen sink on an exterior wall to be extremely vulnerable because the wall is not insulated, according to Popular Mechanics. Open the cabinet doors along that wall to project heat into the space. Place an electric heater in front of the cabinets for an extra measure of cold protection.

Here are a few more suggestions from Angie's List:

5) Close any crawl spaces before winter.

Cold air infiltrates open areas that lead to the home and may freeze the home’s pipes. Don't forget about pipes that run through the garage.

6) Set up fans.

Use a fan to blow warm air from the basement into a connecting crawlspace.

7) Disconnect any hoses from outside valves.

Shut off outside valves on the inside of your home and then open the valve outside to let it drain any remaining water.

8) Keep the water running.

Run cold water at a trickle, especially when temperatures are very cold and there isn’t a lot of snow on the ground (snow can act as an insulator). Running water through your pipes will generate heat and prevent freezing.

9) Or, shut the water off.

In the worst case, turn off the main water valve while the house is unoccupied or while you sleep. If a pipe freezes and breaks, the spillage is limited only to the water in the pipe.

Is the pipe frozen or not?

If you open a faucet and no water comes out during a cold snap, or there's only a little trickle of water, those are signs of a frozen pipe. 

You might be able to thaw a pipe with a hand-held hair dryer, according to the IIBHS. Slowly apply heat, starting close to the faucet end of the pipe, with the faucet open. Work toward the coldest section.

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.

If a water pipe bursts, turn off the water at the main shut-off valve (usually at the water meter or where the main line enters the house). Leave the faucet(s) open until repairs are completed.

If the pipe has burst and the area is flooded, don’t use electrical appliances while standing in water. You could get electrocuted.