We get a lot of inquiries about winterizing houses and concerns about frozen pipes this time of year. Properly winterizing a house is somewhat time consuming and requires a fair amount of non-toxic anti-freeze, some special equipment and a bit of understanding about how houses are piped. Here are the conditions that can lead to burst pipes, along with some tips to prevent the problem.
When do pipes freeze? How do you prevent it?
It is common knowledge that water freezes at 32 degrees Fahrenheit, but our experience with frozen pipes tells us a bit more about this issue than the freezing temperature alone would indicate. Pipe location and how long it has been below freezing are very significant factors. For most homes internal pipes freeze at much lower temperatures than most homeowners would expect.
Conversely, we get a surprising amount of frozen pipes in houses that are well heated. Usually it is a use of supplemental heaters to save money that cause the trouble. Other spaces that are unattended can be trouble spots and are worth paying attention to when the weather gets really cold. If you heat an area to keep the main heating system off you have to be conscious of the other areas the heating system protects. This is one of the most common scenarios of frozen pipes that we see.
There is no disputing that pipes can freeze, burst, and cause a water emergency if they are below 32 degrees for any length of time. Insulation alone will not solve that problem because if it is below freezing temperature and its insulated it will still freeze. This sounds like common sense, but it is not always obvious. If you have a pipe that runs through a space that drops below freezing, the pipe must have a way of being heated as well as being insulated. Heat tape comes to mind; although, that is not without its own set of concerns.
A common freeze-up situation happens when a pipe is just a little exposed and it’s both cold and windy. The wind does a good job of increasing the exposure of the pipe and this is often the primary cause of deep winter frozen pipe calls. It was pretty well insulated and pretty well protected but there was just that one little crack in the insulation or protection. Hot water pipes freeze like this as well and it happens more than you would think. It’s important that the pipes are completely isolated from the freezing temperatures. Internal piping is the best bet but not always possible.
If a house is relatively “tight” and the pipes are all in reasonably well-protected, it is relatively uncommon for pipes to freeze unless the heat has been off for an extended period of time. If it is really cold (single digits or below) and windy, and it has been that way for a few days, we know we are in the danger zone. Warmer than that for shorter periods of time usually allows for quite a bit of latitude, if the house is in pretty good shape. If in doubt, call your heating professional; we can help!