Solutions Newsletter


It’s that time of year again when all you can think about is extra layers of clothes and a cup of hot chocolate. If our plumbing systems could think, they would probably be daydreaming the same thing—how to stay warm in the harsh winter months. The frigid temperatures of winter increase the potential for frozen and damaged water pipes, causing subsequent water damage to a building. With some basic precautionary actions or “winterizing,” you can reduce the chance of frozen pipes and water damage in your home or buildings. So here is what you can do to help prevent frozen pipes:

1. Bundle Up
Most of us throw on a jacket when it gets cold, so why not do the same for your pipes? Before that cold weather arrives, bundle up your plumbing. Pipes protruding through walls to the outside and exterior faucets should be insulated, as should pipes running though attics, crawlspaces, garages, and other unheated areas. Hot water pipes are not always hot and should also be protected when exposed.
Where extreme cold weather exists, consider using heat tape or thermostat-controlled heat cables to keep exposed, vulnerable pipes protected from freezing. Only use such equipment if it is Underwriter’s Laboratories (UL) approved.

2. Outside Down, Inside Up
When outside temperatures drop below freezing (32 degrees F., 0 degrees C.) ensure the heat is turned up. This is particularly important when leaving buildings empty for an extended period of time, like classrooms over the weekend and churches for days. If you need to leave a building vacant for a long time, consider shutting off water and draining lines by opening faucets at the highest and lowest points. This process may also require blowing air through the pipes to remove water from low spots (as I learned the hard way when I owned property in Northern Arizona).

Open cabinet doors under sinks in kitchens and bathrooms, to allow heated air to circulate underneath. Do the same for other cabinets along walls where there might be plumbing. Keep room doors open to enhance the circulation of warm air throughout the building.

Information varies on how high to set thermostats, that may be influenced by a building itself, its construction and how well it is insulated. Most sources indicate that heat should be left on and set to no lower than 55 degrees F. (12.78 degrees C.). If you know that your building is poorly insulated, leaks cold air through windows and has areas that don’t get as warm as others, crank the heat up higher.

In some instances as a last resort, let the cold water run continuously. A stream of water slightly less than a pencil width is recommended.

3. Winterization
This refers to the process of preparing for winter. Some winterization practices will help prevent pipes from freezing:

  • Seal gaps where pipes enter buildings.
  • Stop drafts.
  • Seal leaks around doors and windows to prevent the penetration of cold air into the facility.
  • Disconnect water hoses from all faucets. When connected, water in the hose can freeze and expand and cause faucets and connecting pipes inside the home to freeze and break. Where homes have interior shutoff valves for outside faucets, close the valves and drain water from the pipes leading to the outside.

4. If Pipes Freeze
If pipes freeze, carefully consider options for thawing. Plastic pipes, if accessible can be heated with a hair dryer, but move the dryer continuously along the length of the pipe and do not stay focused on one small area too long. A grounded electrical heating pad on low can also help, but do not use these, hair dryers or other electrical tools if floors and other areas are wet, as electrical shock can occur. Hot wet rags wrapped around pipes provide another option.

Metal pipes can be thawed in the same manner as plastic. Some may consider the use of a flame device to thaw metal pipes, but considerable risk of damage to the pipes exists, and the potential for fire is high. There are numerous statistics on record concerning building fire losses due to pipe thawing activities. Be very cautious.

 5. Get Ready for the Cold
There are other “winterizing” activities that should be done each year, such as cleaning gutters and downspouts. Take the time now to ensure that your buildings are prepared for the cold season. On bitterly cold days, visit churches and other empty buildings to check for problems. Believe me, it is worth the effort.

 Have you encountered frozen pipes in your home or office building? How did you handle the situation?
We want to hear from you.

Posted in: January 2011


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