If you’re lucky to live in a sunny region, you’re probably already experiencing the springtime pleasures: the radiance of sunlight coming through your window, a warm spring day at the park, a refreshing dip in the pool. But if you live in a colder, northern climate, you may not be so lucky yet. In much of the northern U.S, winter is still letting out its last gasp through the spring. And the chill brings with it a plethora of climatic inconveniences: freezing temperatures, rain, sleet, snow, snowstorms, and most bothersome of all: frozen pipes.
Pipes usually freeze once temperatures drop below 20 degrees Fahrenheit. While indoor pipes are somewhat protected from the elements, there is no guarantee that they will be protected once a freeze hits. While water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit — and therefore it is possible for pipes to freeze at this temperature — a full freeze usually only occurs when the temperature drops to or below 20 degrees. While there is no perfect formula to predict when or how your pipes might freeze, there are steps you can take to be prepared and detect warning signs of freezing if it ends up happening.
Even in interior heated spaces, pipes can develop ice blockages if they are located near cracks or openings bringing in cold air. Pipes can freeze overnight during sudden temperature drops. That means that a pipe could burst overnight and stop the influx of unfrozen water gushing through to your kitchen and bathroom faucets, dishwasher, showerheads, bathtub, and garden hoses. The best way to avoid this inconvenient situation is to take preventative measures. Keep an eye on the weather and watch for weather report updates so you can plan in advance for a cold front or freeze. Once you know that freezing temperatures are coming, you should check your pipes for impact, water damage, and potential repair needs. Unprepared pipes are the perfect recipe for cold-weather disaster. Better yet– keep an eye on your pipes year-around so you can be prepared for the day that might cause them to burst.
Why do pipes freeze?
The three main causes of a pipe freezing is low temperatures (usually, a rapid temperature drop), poor insulation, and thermostats set too low. When water freezes, it expands. Think about pouring unfrozen water into an ice tray and putting it in the freezer for a few hours. When you take it out of the freezer, you will notice that the resulting ice is physically larger than the space that the unfrozen water occupied. When your water pipes freeze over, the water inside expands and this can cause the pipes to burst. When a pipe bursts, water leaks out and can cause damage to your home.
What should I do if my pipes burst?
If your water pipes freeze and burst, call a plumber or another licensed expert immediately.
To detect frozen pipes, you should be able to recognize the warning signs.
Warning Signs of Frozen Pipes and Pipe Bursts:
- Bad odors
If you detect a musty, mold-like odor coming from your drain pipes, it could indicate unwanted bacterial growth on pipes. Mold and mildew release foul-smelling gases that should definitely not be ignored. Mold, while not very commonly found on pipes, is toxic and presents the biggest danger as it can infect all of your home’s water storage including water storage tanks, tap water, and water-running appliances such as refrigerator filters and ice makers.
If you detect a sour or musty smell when you run the water, it could be a sign that the pipes have frozen over. If you find visible mold or other organic matter developing near faucets and valves, it is probably spreading through the water source. This may indicate frozen pipes as the water gets jammed by the ice and cannot flow properly. Therefore, the odor will move upwards as it cannot flow properly through the pipe system. Discolored water may also be a symptom of ice blockage in the pipes.
- Bubbling or peeling wallpaper and/or paint
In the more advanced stage of a frozen pipe, the wallpaper or paint may begin to peel or exhibit bubble-like erosions. Wall damage usually indicates that the pipes have been frozen for some time, and that the wall has already suffered a rupture or crack. This occurs when ice blocks a pipe, expands, and causes excessive water pressure resulting in a rupture. This can be avoided by checking pipes once initially suspected to be frozen.
- Visible frost
One of the most telling signs of a frozen or burst pipe is the sight of frost. If there is a visible section of an exposed water pipe, look to see if any frost is visible. If there is frost, the water pipe is most likely frozen or in the process of freezing.
- The sound of running water
If you suspect your pipes have frozen, the sound of running water– or a “whistling” sound — may be a sign that it has. This sound may occur if a pipe burst causes damage like denting. In this case, the pipe is contracted and is too small for water to pass through. If you hear the sound of running water in your walls, check your pipes immediately.
- Structural damage
Frozen pipes can also result in structural damage to the walls or ceilings. Common symptoms of structure damage including sagging, texturing, collapse. Structural damage can occur when a pipe burst and water leaks out into the walls of the home. Rotting may also occur in materials such as drywall, plaster and lathe. If you notice wall damage, this means there is significant structural damage. In this case, you should consult with a plumber immediately.
Preventative Methods to Avoid Frozen Pipes
- Keep the water running
You check the weather and see that a cold snap is on its way. If temperatures are expected to drop below freezing, plan ahead a few hours beforehand by keeping at least one faucet in your home trickling. You should be able to see small drops of water slowly coming from the faucet. Even a small, hardly-there trickle can protect your pipes from freezing by keeping water moving through the system.
- Insulate pipes
You can insulate pipes in the attic using pipe insulation. Pipe insulation is a method of wrapping your pipes with pipe wrap — usually made from fiberglass — to keep them warm. Pipe wraps also come in plastic and foil-backed fiberglass. You can wrap your pipes yourself at home or have a plumber do it for you. To wrap pipes, roll the wrap around tightly using a “pipe sleeve” or another insulated material.
- Keep the thermostat at the same temperature all day and night
Set the thermostat no lower than 55 degrees Fahrenheit (12 degrees Celsius). Keeping the heat on at night is important because the coldest temperatures come after midnight. If the thermostat is set too low, your pipes will be more vulnerable to freezing.