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The best time to winterize pipes is before the deepest cold of winter sets in. But what's ideal isn't always practical. So, if you've just discovered it's going to get really, really cold and you're worried your water pipes might freeze, here are some steps you can take right now.
When temperatures are forecast to drop below 20°F, there's trouble ahead for water pipes. If your house is poorly insulated, that trouble can start even in the mid 20s. Plus, temperatures need to remain in that range for three to six hours in order for the water inside the pipes to freeze. So, if it's just a quick drop or if temperatures are at freezing or slightly below, relax. You should be okay.
Assuming you're in for pipe-busting temperatures very soon, here's what you need to do right away.
Open the cabinet doors under all the sinks. This lets the warm air of the house heat those pipes.
If for some reason you keep your garage doors up and there are pipes in there, or the garage is attached to the house, close those doors!
If there are pipes in the garage or in the basement, aim a space heater at the pipes and plug it into an outlet that's at a safe distance—do not run an extension cord!
Keep your house warmer than you might typically and don't let temps drop below 55°F.
Keep all the doors inside the house open. If a closet backs up against a bathroom, open the closet door too. You want warm air to circulate through all rooms.
If it's going to be extremely cold, drip both hot- and cold-water faucets, especially those closest to the outside walls.
You can't drip toilets. So, if a toilet is located near an outside wall or is in a cold area, angle a small space heater toward the inlet feed. You can also flush the toilet every couple of hours. Make sure the base of the toilet has a good bead of caulk where it meets the floor. Adding heat over a long period of time can dry out the wax ring, causing it to crumble and allow drain flies into the house.
Unhook any hoses, splitters, or extensions from your outdoor faucets.
Snugly attach a faucet insulator (you can get them at hardware stores and home improvement centers) around each exposed spigot. If you don't have any covers and the stores are closed, wrap layers of cloth, a blanket or towel, or even wadded-up newspaper around the faucet and tape it into place. If it's going to sleet or snow, add plastic over top and wrap it in place too. It won't be pretty, but it will help.
Some outside faucets (known as frost- or freeze-proof faucets/spigots/hose bibbs) actually have a cutoff valve inside the house. If you have one of those, turn it off and let the water drain to the outside before you cover it.
If there's a power outlet under there and there's no water leakage, add a small space heater near the pipes. Even a radiant heat lamp clamped to a sturdy base or rafter can help.
Close the vents and block them with wood or cardboard.
If your attic doesn't have much insulation, you'll need to fix that at a later date. In the meantime, get up there and throw blankets and towels over the top of the pipes. If there's a handy outlet, add a heating pad or blanket.
Check all the faucets to see which ones have no water. That will help you figure out where there's ice in the line. Bear in mind there may be more than one frozen pipe. Whichever faucets have no water, keep them open. This will help relieve pressure on the pipe so maybe it won't burst. It will also be the way you know the ice has melted and water flow has been restored.
If there's a way to access the frozen pipe, you might be able to thaw it yourself. Sometimes a pipe will actually have frost on the outside, helping narrow things down. Use a hair dryer, heated blanket, or heating pad on the general area. Do NOT use a blow torch or anything with an open flame! Move the hair dryer back and forth to cover several feet because you've no idea just how backed up the ice might be.
If you can't access the pipe, keep the affected faucets open and call a plumber. This should be fixed right away to prevent bursting.
There are more permanent solutions to help all your water pipes survive below-freezing temperatures. However, you should still be prepared to take many of the emergency steps we listed above. Nothing is completely foolproof or fail-proof.
Seal all exterior cracks and holes, even those around the back of your spigots.
Inside the house, seal all areas where you feel cold air coming in. This can be around the windowsills, electrical outlets, and along the floor. It might even be around ceiling fixtures.
Wrap pipes with electrical heat tape. This is especially good for short runs where sections are at high risk of freezing. Some come with sensors and can be left plugged in all the time. Others are strictly manual so you must leave access to reach them.
Add fiberglass wrapping or insulation sleeves around exposed pipes. Do not leave any gaps! This does not heat the pipe but keeps the pipe from transferring cold exterior temperatures to the water.
Add plenty of insulation to under-insulated areas such as walls, attics, and crawl spaces so they meet current code requirements.
Inside pipes that run along the outside of the house will require opening the walls up so sleeves can be used. Vulnerable walls may also need to have the Sheetrock or paneling removed so new insulation can be installed.
Have a plumber replace your standard outdoor faucets with frost-proof or freeze-proof ones. Remember, these also have a cutoff valve which is installed indoors.
Purchase faucet covers for all of your outdoor faucets.
Purchase smart leak detectors and sensors to deploy in trouble-prone spots. Some can even sense the water temperature inside a pipe.
If you have yard irrigation, contact a specialist and set up a schedule for them to winterize the system before freezing temperatures hit. Or have them show you how to do it.
Cut blocks of thick insulation that can be placed behind the crawl vents for additional heat retention. You do not want to permanently seal up the crawl space. Otherwise mold and mildew will build up and cause damage.
Whether you live in the North or Deep South, it's worth the time, effort, and resources to protect your incoming water supply during the winter. If you're in doubt as to the best way to proceed, call the plumbers. Get their advice. And use their services for those areas in your house you just can't handle yourself.
You may still need to enact some of the steps we first listed. But the worry factor will be far less. Then, next time old-man winter pays a deep-freeze call, you'll know exactly what you need to do to protect your home.
And if you ever need to replace water hoses leading to your washer, steam dryer, dishwasher, or refrigerator (they should be changed every five years), be sure to check out our selection at certifiedaccessories.com! We've a wide variety of lengths and hose styles sure to meet your needs.
Disclaimer: This article is for informational and educational purposes only. Certified Appliance Accessories is not liable or responsible for any damages resulting from or related to your use of this information.