Britain has never been renowned for its warm climate and unfortunately, the risk of your pipes freezing over, and in the worst cases, bursting, only rise the longer your plumbing is left unchecked in the cold.
Frozen pipes can have an adverse effect on your life, from disrupting your daily routine, to causing expensive damage to your home, they’re definitely a danger you need to be prepared for.
Luckily, whilst frozen pipes are definitely a possibility, they are by no means inevitable, and there are a number of ways you can pre-empt and protect your home from this happening.
Why do Pipes Freeze?
Pipes freeze over when the water inside, either through lack of use or a particularly nasty drop in temperature, freezes over and stops running through the system. This can cause a number of problems for your plumbing. Disregarding the fact that frozen water renders your plumbing completely unusable, the cold can cause your pipes to contract and weaken areas, creating leaks, or worse, the pipes can burst open completely.
It’s not the expansion of the frozen water in the pipes that can cause it to burst, but the increase in pressure caused by the blockage between it and the closed faucet at the end of the pipe – if left untreated for too long, the pipe will blow!
Pipes Most at Risk
The first step in protecting your pipes from freezing over, is to understand that some pipes will inherently be more at risk than others, such as:
- Exposed pipes in unheated areas of the home, such as attics or basements
- Plumbing on the exterior of the home
- Plumbing in unattended properties
Exposed Exterior Plumbing
Exterior plumbing, such as garden hoses, are the most susceptible to freezing over and can have an adverse effect on your interior pipes. If water freezes and expands in your garden hose, it can actually build up a massive amount of pressure throughout the entire plumbing system, causing your interior pipes to burst.
Whilst the exterior pipes are obviously going to be worst hit by the cold, they’re often the most forgotten about. It’s important that, before the cold weather hits, you make sure your garden hose is fully drained, and the interior valve is closed.
Exposed Interior Plumbing
Pipes that are located in unheated areas of the house, such as an attic or garage, are at a huge risk of freezing over.
The good news is they can be easily, and inexpensively, protected by some moderate pipe insulation, or thermostatically controlled heat tape, which will turn on at certain minimum temps.
In the worst cases, it might be necessary to reroute the piping to a safer area, although it’s always best to check with a plumber beforehand.
Due to extended periods of inactivity over the winter months, the plumbing in vacant properties such as holiday homes, are often the most at risk. Without a frequent flow of water, or an idle central heating system, it’s too easy for the water in the pipes to stagnate, and freeze.
However, if you’re proactive, and follow the pre-emptive procedures below, there’s no reason why you and your plumbing can’t make it through the cold months unscathed!
Preventative Measures for Frozen Pipes
Keep the Heat On
Keeping the heat on whilst you’re away from your property can be an easy and efficient way to prevent your pipes from freezing. Of course, to save money on your utility bill, the heat doesn’t have to be as high as you’d usually keep, but setting it so it provides a constant warmth, around 10 degrees celsius, should be enough to stop the water inside your plumbing from freezing.
Keeping on top of boiler maintenance should be important to every home, but especially during the winter when the additional use can put an extra strain on your boiler. Ensuring that your boiler is regularly serviced can help you catch the problem signs early.
Allow the Tap to Drip
Pipes burst due to the pressure created between the frozen water and the closed valve of the faucet. By opening the faucet and allowing it to drip, you’ll prevent the pressure from building and, retain a steady flow of water.
Keep Interior Doors Open
It’s always a good idea to keep your interior doors open, even cabinet doors, to allow the heat from the rest of your home to warm the pipes that often lie behind these walls. Opening doors and allowing heat to travel around the space of the house, should minimise the risk of one room, and the plumbing inside, becoming too cold, even if it’s not in a particular hotspot.
Seal Up Cracks and Holes
Make sure you check over your interior and exterior walls and keep an eye out for any holes and cracks that exist near pipes. If any are spotted, treat caulk them for a quick and effective fix, to insulate your plumbing from cold air.
Apply Heating Tape
If your pipes are easily accessible, you can use electrical heating tape to provide an extra barrier to protect from the cold, as the tape needs to be applied directly to the pipe.
There are two types of heating tape. One type of heating tape turns on and off by itself when it senses heat is needed. The other type of heating tape needs to be plugged in when heat is needed and unplugged when not in use.
Much like a space heater, these products can be dangerous, so you must follow the product’s direction and safety procedures exactly.
Add Extra Insulation
It’s always a good idea to check over your pipes in areas of low heat, such as basements or attics, and see if they may need extra insulation over the colder months.
If your pipes are relatively exposed, it’s an easy solution to fit them with foam, rubber or fibreglass sleeves, however the process can get expensive if walls, floors or ceilings have to be opened in order to properly insulate the pipe. Although, when measured against the potential costs of a water damaged home, it seems worth the investment!
Additionally, you can add insulation to walls and ceilings to keep the pipes warm.
Signs Your Pipes are Frozen
The most obvious sign that your pipes are frozen is going to be the lack of running water coming out of the taps. If you turn your taps on and only a small trickle of water comes out, especially if the temperature outside is right for it, you can be pretty sure your pipes are frozen.
Similarly, in colder weather, make sure to keep an eye out on the pipes that are easily accessible or visible, both interior and exterior, because if frost starts to accumulate on the sides, there’s a strong likelihood, you guessed it, your pipes are frozen.
If this does happen to you, it’s important that you act quickly and sensibly.
If you choose to approach it DIY style, there are a few cardinal rules to follow:
- Do NOT use an open flame or any electrical heating source, the flame could ignite any combustible and you could find yourself electrocuted from a hidden leak
- Never apply heat directly to the pipe, the intense heat could cause steam pressure to build and force the pipes to explode – a safer way to approach thawing is to wrap towels around the pipe and pour hot water over those instead
- Never attempt to heat the coldest section first, always start outside and slowly move the heat towards the problem area, otherwise pressure could build between the frozen sections and cause the pipes to rupture
- Always turn off the water at the main shut-off valve before beginning any work
However, unless you’re already somewhat experienced with plumbing, or even if you are, thawing frozen pipes can always be a risk and you are putting yourself in danger by attempting to do so yourself. We would always advocate that you contact an experienced and licensed professional plumber.