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How To Prevent Frozen Pipes (And What To Do If They Freeze Anyway

Katy Ward
A frozen pipe
Having a pipe freeze and then burst is probably one of the biggest disasters that can occur in your home.

Having a pipe freeze and then burst is probably one of the biggest disasters that can occur in your home. In the worst-case scenario, this type of emergency could destroy your most valuable possessions and leave you facing a bill for thousands (or even tens of thousands) of dollars.

Luckily, there are several precautions you can take to keep the plumbing in your property running smoothly. Here, we explain how you can prevent your pipes from freezing and what to do in the event of a plumbing emergency.

How to spot a frozen pipe

No matter how limited your plumbing knowledge, there are certain telltale signs of a frozen pipe that are almost impossible to miss. These include:

  • Water not coming out of your faucets (or just a trickle)
  • Frost on your pipes 
  • Toilets not refilling after flushing
  • Unpleasant odours coming from drains and taps
  • Gurgling sounds coming from within your pipes
  • Visible bulges in your pipes

If you’re in any doubt as to whether you have a frozen pipe in your home, it’s essential that you call in a plumber as soon as possible who can assess the situation and give you advice on the best course of action.

How to prevent frozen pipes 

The first step in preventing frozen pipes is to identify potential risk areas in your home. In many properties, the pipes most likely to freeze are those located in unheated areas such as basements and crawl spaces. Likewise, you should keep an eye on any pipes that run against exterior walls as these also tend to be uninsulated and exposed to extreme cold.

Once you’ve identified these problem areas, it’s sensible to take the following actions to protect your plumbing.

Install foam pipe insulation

One of the simplest and most effective ways to protect your pipes is to install foam pipe insulation. Also known as lagging, this type of insulation can keep the temperature of any water in your pipes between 2℉ and 4℉ higher than it would be in uninsulated pipes.

Insulate attics, basements, and crawl spaces

As part of your long-term strategy to reduce heat loss across your property, consider insulating the areas of your home in which the temperature is most likely to drop during a cold snap. Sealing cracks around windows, doors, and at sill plates (the point at which the building rests on its foundation) is another smart move.

Keep your thermostat at a steady temperature

Although most of us tend to switch our heating off when we go to bed, plumbers often recommend keeping your thermostat at the same temperature during the day and night. In fact, maintaining a consistent temperature is one of the best defenses against frozen pipes. As a general rule of thumb, you should never let the temperature in your home drop below 55°F.

Allow cold water to drip from your faucet

Even if you only allow a trickle of water to flow through your pipes, doing so will help ensure constant movement in your plumbing system, which can help prevent your pipes from freezing. Furthermore, it’s sensible to turn your taps on and off regularly to encourage circulation throughout your plumbing.

Open drawers and cabinets doors

Allowing warm air to circulate near appliances and under sinks can prevent any concealed pipes in these locations from freezing. If you have pets or small children in your home, remember to remove any dangerous chemicals as these can pose a serious health hazard.

Don’t forget about outside areas

Although your first instinct may be to focus solely on the pipes inside your property, doing so could be a costly mistake. There are several measures you can take to prevent frozen pipes in your outdoor areas during winter, such as:

  • Draining water from swimming pools and sprinklers 
  • Bringing any outdoor hoses inside during cold weather
  • Closing any valves supplying outdoor hose bibs

Plan ahead for your vacations

If you’re going away for an extended period, consider asking a trusted neighbor, friend, or family member to make regular visits to your home to run water through the faucets and ensure enough warm air is circulating. 

How to thaw a frozen pipe

One piece of good news is that a frozen pipe will not always burst immediately and, if you act promptly, you should be able to avoid disaster.

The safest and most effective way to thaw a frozen pipe is by wrapping an electrical heating pad around the affected area. If you don’t have any of these to hand, try using a hairdryer or towels that have been soaked in hot water. You should continue applying heat to the pipe until the flow of water returns to normal. 

Once you begin reheating your pipes, you’ll need to keep your faucet open as this will allow any steam created during the thawing process to escape safely. At this stage, you should also check the other faucets in your home to ensure you don’t have any more issues with your pipes.

If a pipe freezes on an external wall, you should seek help from a contractor or plumber. In this situation, fixing the problem may require drilling into your property’s wall, which should only ever be attempted by a trained professional.

Remember, you should never use an exposed flame from a blowtorch (or any other source) to thaw frozen pipes. It goes without saying that doing so is a fire hazard and could result in serious damage to your property, as well as causing injury to you and your family.

What to do when pipes burst

If, despite your best efforts, a pipe does burst, keeping a cool head and acting quickly could drastically reduce the amount of damage to your property and belongings.

In the event of an emergency, you should take the following measures.

Turn off the water

When a pipe bursts, it’s essential that you turn off the faucets in the affected areas as quickly as possible. Next, you’ll need to turn off the water supply in your property through your main shut-off valve. If you’re unsure where your shut-off valve is located, it’s wise to find it now rather than in a high-stress emergency situation. Although every home is different, these tend to be located in basements, crawlspaces, or garages.

Shut off the electricity

As the mixture of water and electricity increases the risk of electrocution, it’s also prudent to turn off your electricity supply in the affected rooms and potentially even the entire property. You can do this by flipping the circuit breakers on your main electrical panel to the off position. Your main electrical panel is typically located on the other side of the wall from your electricity meter and is often mounted on a dark metal box.

Move your valuables to another room

If a pipe bursts, you should move any items that have financial or sentimental value out of harm’s way as soon as possible. Once you have taken all necessary emergency measures, it’s also a good idea to start mopping up any excess water to reduce the risk of water damage and prevent mold from forming.

Contact your home insurer or warranty provider

While a home insurance policy should generally cover the damage caused by any escaped water, a home warranty plan will protect the essential items in your home that could be the cause of your burst pipe. In some cases, this coverage could extend to your plumbing systems.

Many home warranty companies will allow you to file a claim either online or over the phone, with some offering this service on a 24/7 basis. Although most home warranty providers have a waiting period of several working days before they assign a contractor to your claim, others will expedite this service in the event of an emergency such as a burst pipe.

Although the best home warranty provider for you will depend on your circumstances and the type of appliances you’d like to protect, Choice Home Warranty and Select Home Warranty are among the market leaders. With the former, you’ll receive a month’s free coverage when you take out a policy, while the latter offers its customers free roof leak coverage.

Conclusion

If you’re concerned about pipes in your home freezing or even bursting, prevention is certainly better than cure, and by following the tips outlined in this article, you can dramatically reduce your risk of a plumbing emergency.

One final tip: whatever precautions you take to improve the health of your plumbing, there’s no substitute for seeking help from a qualified contractor or plumber should the worst happen.

Katy Ward
Oxford graduate Katy Ward is a seasoned journalist and editor covering personal finance and software topics for Eleven Writing and Top10. Over a 15-year career, Katy has worked with several finance titans, including Barclays, Tandem Bank, and Yahoo! Finance.