When temperatures dip to frigid extremes, a major homeowner concern is keeping pipes from freezing. A frozen pipe can cause catastrophic damage if it bursts, so it’s important to be prepared with some tricks and techniques for when winter arrives. Here are some tips to help you learn how to protect pipes from freezing (and what to do if there’s already a problem):

Preventative Measures

Outside pipes and water lines are at the highest risk for freezing, so take care of them first. If you have a pool or a sprinkler system, drain the supply lines so that there is no water in them to freeze in the first place. Pipes that are located in uninsulated areas of the home—basements, crawl spaces, garages, and even kitchen cabinets—are also at a high risk for freezing. Ideally, these pipes should be insulated. Home improvement stores carry a variety of pipe insulation products ranging from special sleeves to insulating tape, but even wrapping pipes in newspaper will provide some protection against the cold. If there are pipes in the garage, try to keep your garage door closed as much as possible, and if your kitchen and bathroom pipes run along an exterior wall, keep lower cabinet doors open so that warm interior air can circulate more efficiently. Another trick to warm up the area is to place a lamp with a 60-watt incandescent or compact fluorescent bulb near the pipes in question. Finally, you can run water to keep pipes from freezing, but the water doesn’t need to be turned on full blast. Cold water turned on at a drip will suffice, and you won’t run your water heater out of hot water.

Thawing Already Frozen Pipes

If you turn on a faucet and the water only trickles out, you most likely have a frozen pipe. Keep the water turned on as you go about trying to thaw the pipe—the small amount of water flowing through the pipe will help the rest of it thaw. Use heat to melt the ice in the pipe, but don’t drag out the blowtorch. Gentle, gradual heat is the goal here. A heating pad, a hair dryer, a space heater, or even hot towels will provide plenty of heat. Keep applying heat to the pipe until water flows out of the tap normally. As you do this, keep an eye out for any small leaks in the pipe itself and at any connections to other pipes—water may not spew out everywhere, but those small leaks could still indicate a rupture that needs to be fixed.

Preparing for Next Winter

Insulating your pipes to prepare for the winter is a good idea, but don’t neglect the insulation in the rest of your home. Adding to existing attic insulation, insulating and encapsulating crawl spaces, and caulking and sealing exterior doors and windows can go a long way toward keeping your home a more consistent temperature. You’ll not only save money on energy bills, but you’ll also lower your risk of frozen pipes. If your home has pipes that are at risk for freezing but that are inaccessible, don’t fret. A licensed plumber may be able to help, and if all else fails, remember that plumbing can be moved. It is usually an expensive and disruptive process, but it isn’t out of the realm of possibility. Finally, if you plan to travel to escape cold weather, leave the heat on in your home, and keep the thermostat at 55 degrees or higher. To keep your mind at ease, consider asking a friend or neighbor to check in on the house periodically.

Although a little preparation is necessary to keep your pipes from freezing, think of it as an investment in the health of one of your home’s most important systems. Even relatively small levels of water damage can cause innumerable problems, so take a few minutes to make sure that your pipes will make it through the upcoming winter in one piece.

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Sources: American Red Cross; HammerZone; HGTV; Houselogic.

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