Skip to main content
Brutal temperatures can freeze the vulnerable pipes in your home, and frozen pipes can lead to burst pipes -- and a big mess on your hands. Here's how to prevent and deal with this common winter concern.

If you've never seen a burst water pipe -- or the damage one causes -- consider yourself lucky. According to Sate Farm Insurance, about 250,000 homes sustain water damage annually from this calamity, a result of frozen pipes. In fact, "damage" is too weak a word to describe the disastrous effect a water pipe can have when it gushes open inside your home.

We remodeled a basement that had a water pipe burst while the homeowners were on vacation. Water rose to about 6 inches in the 30 x 30-foot room and destroyed virtually everything in it: a pool table, clothes, electronics -- even a wedding dress. Had there not been a shower in the basement to help drain some of the water, it would have been worse.

They had to take quick action to clean it up -- and we don't just mean getting rid of the water. We mean removing soaked framing, drywall, paneling, carpets, and anything else that was at risk for mold and mildew issues. Not fun.

And that's just the basement. When water pipes burst on upper floors, everything below is suddenly at risk as water cascades across floors and around framing until it finally (and relentlessly) finds a way down to where it'll always reach: the lowest point.

Since water always wins, prevention is the best medicine, which means taking simple but effective action to make sure your pipes don't freeze and, ultimately, burst. A poorly insulated house can actually protect pipes in a sense, because the conditioned air inside the house keeps the wall cavity above from freezing. But when it gets really cold, the weather wins and the water in the pipes starts to freeze. If you don't catch it in time, that's all she wrote.

RISK FACTORS FOR FROZEN AND BURST PIPES
Any pipes that are situated in such a way that they can easily reach freezing temperatures are at risk. The most obvious are garden hoses. Others are less obvious and may even be totally hidden. Pipes that run across a garage ceiling, up an exterior wall that's not insulated, or under a crawl space are all classic examples. These vulnerable conditions tend to exist in old houses in which plumbing was retrofitted. It's not out of the question to see pipes situated this way in new houses, though. Not the wisest move, now that we know better.

Another sign you've got pipes on their way to the freezing point: water starts to run slowly (especially during deep freezes) or you find ice in your toilet.

PREVENTING FROZEN PIPES

Re-route: The easiest pipes to keep from freezing are the ones that are never exposed to freezing temperatures. If you have pipes that are exposed to freezing temperatures and have the chance to re-route them (or have a plumber re-route them) that's ideal.

Shut off/drain: Garden hoses are usually easy to shut off and drain. Inside the house -- usually near where the garden hose supply pipe exits the building -- there should be a shut-off valve, which you should shut off every autumn. Outside, open the spigot (there's a little water in there that needs to escape) and remove the garden hose. You should also drain your sprinkler system for the same reason.

In the old days, people used to shut entire wings of their houses down because they couldn't get heat to them. This included bathrooms which often have shut-off valves in their supply plumbing inside the house.

Insulate: Insulating wall cavities is remarkably helpful. If you're remodeling an entire room, adding insulation will be baseline. In other situations insulation can be blown into wall cavities, but it needs to surround the pipe to be effective, which may be tough to predict if you can't see it.

Pipes can also be wrapped with foam insulation, which helps the water inside maintain a regular temperature while it is in a cold location. (We do this with hot water pipes regardless of their exposure to freezing temperatures to help the water stay warmer longer, including inside walls.)

You should also insulate where pipes enter and exit the house. Spray foam insulation like Great Stuff is effective at knocking down drafts and keeping typically colder parts of a house (utility rooms, crawl spaces, etc.) warmer or easier to heat.

In a garage situation, you can add a gasket to the bottom of the door and add insulation to the door itself to help keep the area above freezing, but the reality is this will do more to help keep the inside of your house more comfortable than keep the unheated garage above freezing. You can also fabricate a soffit (a box) around the pipes and insulate it to help keep their temperature even. Again, it's 100% better than nothing but far from a guarantee unless the pipes can stay consistently above freezing no matter how cold it gets.

Heat tape: Most home centers sell heat tape. You wrap heat tape around a pipe and plug in to a receptacle. It can be effective in places like garages and crawlspaces where you can get to the pipe to wrap it, but it really only guards where it is wrapped (in this writer's experience). So if the pipe goes under a crawl space you can't reach or up a wall you can't access, it may not be guaranteed to work but it's 100% better than nothing.

Trickle: If you can't do any of the options above -- and that's common, especially in old homes -- opening both cold and hot water taps to a trickle can keep a pipes from freezing because the water is moving. However, this doesn't do as much good for a toilet, but periodic flushing might help.

Open doors: For rooms that get cold (that powder room in the far corner of the house for example), keeping the door to that room open can help. If the problem is under the kitchen counter, you can keep cabinet doors open (like at night before you go to bed). Granted, this is a highly impractical everyday solution.

Shut off water at the main: This is totally unscientific, but it almost seems like pipes actually prefer to burst -- whether frozen or not -- when homeowners aren't home and the water never really gets a chance to run all day or all week. The good news is that prevention is pretty easy: shut the water supply off at the main, where it enters the house near the water meter, next time you go on vacation (during the winter or summer). Also, open all your faucets to drain the system. When you get home, leave the faucets open, turn the main back on and let the water run until all the air is out of the system. (If you have pets and someone is watching your home, leave gallons of water for them to use.)

The main's knob is often difficult to turn (because it's rarely shut off). If you can't move yours, get a plumber in to replace it as soon as possible. I recommend the handle type (plumbers might call it a 'ball valve'). They're easier to operate.

Also, everyone (age-appropriate of course) in the house should know where the main is and how/when to use it.

Invest in RedyTemp: There is one product on the market that takes a different approach. RedyTemp is installed under a sink at the end of a plumbing run. The thermostatic device regularly sends heated water through your entire plumbing system preventing water from freezing in all locations according to the company.

FIXING FROZEN PIPES

If your pipes have already frozen but haven't burst, take immediate action. What to do depends on where the pipe freezes, but generally speaking, if you can heat the pipes back up, you can avert disaster.

Blow dryer/Heat gun/Hot cloths: If you open the faucet on the sink and nothing comes out, it probably means your pipes are full of ice. Chances are they're not frozen in the room where the heat is, but somewhere upstream (in the garage, wall cavity or crawl space.) If you have access to them, try blowing hot air from a hair dryer or heat gun to melt the blockage and get you out of a jam. You might also heat the space with a heat lamp or space heater. And -- it goes without saying -- use heat-generating products according to manufacturer instructions to avoid house fires.

You can also heat up water on the stove, soak rags or cloths in there, then wrap the pipe. This works at thawing pipes, but takes take a long time.

FIXING BURST PIPES

If pipes are still frozen: If the pipe bursts but is still frozen inside, shut off the water, either at a shut-off upstream or at the main. Unless you know how to remove and replace the section of pipe, call a plumber.

If water is gushing: If water is running out of the breech, take the same steps to shut off the supply and call a plumber.

If, however, your basement is flooded or it's been raining in your townhouse for three days, you've got a second layer of problems to solve and you'll need to have the problem not just cleaned up but remediated. You can call a remodeler who may be able to manage the situation, but you ay also call your homeowner's insurance company and/or a company that specializes in disaster remediation, which we hope you don't ever need.

And, you can look at it this way: preventing freezing pipes might be all the reason you need to take on that kitchen or bath renovation.


  • dvdsn61

    The best way to prevent frozen water lines id to install heat tape. They only use electricity when the temperatuires ate below freezing temperatures, and Ive never had to replace one when it's installed correctly.

    Reply
  • Ann

    I agree Http://www.bathremodelingsite.info we used it on the pipes for our new bathroom and have had no problems.


  • lori

    youre right and make sure this is covered by your homeowners insurance

    Reply
  • Bill Fitzpatrick

    I use to hate frozen pipe calls. You could never guess how long it would take. Nobody wants to pay my hourly wage to stand around and let them thaw. Here's a few guideline tips. Find out how to turn the house water off (Just good to know). You usually have 24 hours before they split( gives you a window to work in). Now this sounds nuts, but hot water usually freezes first (has to do with expansion and oxygen). Look for the cold spot or where the draft is, Its possible that a hair dryer might un freeze a pipe or even an iron( Use common sense , A fire is the last thing you want. ) Turn the house heat up to 90 That might do it. If a drain pipe remove all the water you can from sink or tub. Sometimes a container of salt (Nortons or such) poured in and then attacked with a plunger will do it. Better yet if you pour salt directly in it from roof vent.( no traps to work around) takes a couple hours but usually works.

    Reply
  • GB

    It's actually not true that hot water will freeze faster than cold water---due to something called physics.


  • JOEY DA DEE


    I use to hate frozen pipe calls. You could never guess how long it
    would take. Nobody wants to pay my hourly wage to stand around and let
    them thaw. Here's a few guideline tips. Find out how to turn the house
    water off (Just good to know). You usually have 24 hours before they
    split( gives you a window to work in). Now this sounds nuts, but hot
    water usually freezes first (has to do with expansion and oxygen).
    Look for the cold spot or where the draft is, Its possible that a hair
    dryer might un freeze a pipe or even an iron( Use common sense , A
    fire is the last thing you want. ) Turn the house heat up to 90 That
    might do it. If a drain pipe remove all the water you can from sink or
    tub. Sometimes a container of salt (Nortons or such) poured in and
    then attacked with a plunger will do it. Better yet if you pour salt
    directly in it from roof vent.( no traps to work around) takes a
    couple hours but usually works.

    Reply
  • Sylvan Tieger,LMP

    Dee GREAT idea pouring salt down a vent terminal without the benefit of knowing if the system is stack vented or vent stack after all it is only a 50% chance your right or wrong


  • Sylvan Tieger, LMP

    Let me see if I have this suggestion right?

    "Remove all the water from a trap" does this mean it is ok to have carcinogenic and flammable fumes entering the structure instead of having a possible freeze up?

    "Now this sounds nuts, but hot
    water usually freezes first (has to do with expansion and oxygen) "

    Could it actually be that cold water is USED Much more often thus moving water will not freeze as readily?

    Could it also be that hot water lines are normally smaller thus less volume thus it can freeze faster?

    The idea about oxygen being boiled out is GREAT but those who bother to read would find out many of the residential heaters do not BOIL the water as 125 DEG F will not even kill any bacteria

    Try another line of the people possibly you can fool them :)


  • Coop

    This article was pretty good and brought two things to my mind. First, if you're trying to thaw PVC pipe, be EXTRA careful. You don't want to melt the pipe! Second, it's not a bad idea to go out and "exercise" your main water cut-off valve at least a couple of times a year - just in case something ever does break and you need to shut the water off fast. Even in the summer, you don't want water spraying all over your house while you wrestle the main valve. In fact, speaking of cut-offs, I replaced mine with a 1/4 turn ball valve which is faster to shut off, less likely to leak (due to the construction/design of these valves versus the old hand-wheel style), and less likely to seize up on you. I highly recommend them.

    Reply
  • David A

    I have an outdoor garden hose spigot. It has the valve about 6 feet into the house- no separate shut off valve. The outdoor know shuts off the water supply inside - no water from valve to outdoor spout.
    There is a trickle of water leaking out of the spout. I think the valve must have small leak allowing a very small trickle. It is freezing when it hits the ground. Is there anything I should do now - or should I wait for Spring & warmer weather to replace the valve.
    Thank you for your help.

    Reply
  • Coop

    David: I'm not quite sure I fully understand the arrangement there. Do you have to go inside the house to turn your garden hose on and off? Or, are you saying that turning off the hose bib on the exterior of your house shuts off the water in your house? I'm not quite sure what you're trying to describe, but either way, if it's not pouring out and running up your water bill or creating an ice hazard on your porch or sidewalk, I'd probably leave it alone until Spring.


  • jm

    David-
    Open and close the indoor valve a couple times. There may be a piece of rust or silt stuck in the valve, and it just needs to be jarred loose. Leave the outside valve open when you do this, you want the water to flow freely. For those who don't know about this, go into your basement/crawlspace and look for a shut-off valve just INSIDE from where your outdoor faucet is. Turn it OFF when the weather is cold! Otherwise, your outdoor faucet will freeze and burst, spewing water all over your yard until you discover it. It MAY even freeze just INSIDE the foundation wall, and then you have a HUGE problem! Take it from someone who lives in Northern Minnesota, this is NOT something you want to experience!


  • George C. Minnich

    A few years back we were gone over Christmas and returned Christmas day. Fortunately a neighbor had shut off the water the day the pipe in the garage wall burst. But when we got home from our trip we needed to clean up, plus go to work next day. We needed the water back on. I found a gas station that had some heater hose and hose clamps. I cut out a 2" section where the copper pipe burst, slid the heater hose about 1 12-2 inches over both pipe ends and clamped them down. That repair lasted several months until things warmed up and I ws able to make permanent repairs, including a valve to to shut off the water in that wall leading to an outdoor faucet. Now I make sure I have some spare heate hose and clamps available. Eight PM on Christmas day is not ideal time to try to locate hose and clamps The nearest open gas station that had some was almost 10 miles away.

    Reply
  • jm

    SO many ways to avoid this (unless you're out of town when it happens). Let the water run just a TINY bit, moving water will not freeze. Many areas of the country are simply not prepared for this sort of thing, and one cold snap can mean tragedy. Pay attention to the forecast, and if your crawlspace/basement is not heated, let a faucet trickle just a bit. Seems like wasted water, but when you consider the costs involved with fixing a break, it is child's play!

    Reply
  • Sylvan Tieger,LMP

    Let me see if I have these suggestions right?

    "Remove all the water from a trap" does this mean it is ok to have carcinogenic and flammable fumes entering the structure instead of having a possible freeze up?

    "Now this sounds nuts, but hot
    water usually freezes first (has to do with expansion and oxygen) "

    Could it actually be that cold water is USED Much more often thus moving water will not freeze as readily?

    Could it also be that hot water lines are normally smaller thus less volume thus it can freeze faster?

    The idea about oxygen being boiled out is GREAT but those who bother to read would find out many of the residential heaters do not BOIL the water as 125 DEG F will not even kill any bacteria

    Try another line of the people possibly you can fool them :)

    Reply
  • unclogum

    My God Where do you pratice Disney world?


  • Bill Fitzpatrick

    To all you who know nothing . here are 2 links that explain why hot water freezes first http://library.thinkquest.org/C008537/co
    http://itotd.com/articles/521/water-free… TRy to think before you jump on those that know.

    also bozo thinks someone said remove traps, I did not , But since the pipe was frozen it would not matter . You can't be a master plumber, Must be a Joe Da Plummer


  • Scott Rose

    When we lived in Montana the winter's could get well below zero. We used regular wall insulation, fiberglass type of pink insulation and duck tape to wrap the pipes under the house and the trailer, we also had an electric heat wrap on there too. The heat wrap wouldn't help you if you lost power due to snow storms etc, but the duck taped insulation worked wonders. We never had a broken pipe during the 20 years we lived there just due to using common sense. Best to take care of these problems in the spring or summer and don't wait until it is below freezing to try figuring out a solution, it is considered preventitive maintenence, fix it before it breaks.

    Reply
  • Don Schonger

    As my main pipe frozed this pass week in my mobile home. I took a heat gun to the pvc pipe to thow it out. I had heat tape on it and wraped. Heat taped failed after 3 years. I made a single run along the bottom of pipe. Somone said to run 2 heat tapes and only plug one in, then one fails plug in the other one. Is this a good idea or no? and no I wouldn't cross lines.

    Reply
  • rpalfreybud

    This article, while good, does not explain how to drain water in supply pipes (not drain pipes). After shutting off water supply, drain a few gallons from your water heater. Then, gravity will drain water in supply pipes back into the hot water heater. The best advice in the whole article is to leave doors open......doors to second bathrooms, vanities, even cupboards where pipes run behind. Be sure to explain this to the "little woman" of the house. I left the door to the cellar bathroom and vanity open, only to have the wife close it every time, just because "doors should be closed".

    Reply
  • 24 Comments / 2 Pages
Advertisement

Follow Us

  • No features currently available.

  • More Hot Topics The Daily Fix  •  DIY Warrior  •  Home Ec  •  Handmade
    DIY Disaster Doctor  •  In the Workshop  •  Product Picks

    Home Improvement Videos