All Boston homeowners worry about the possibility of frozen pipes in the winter and with good reason. Frozen pipes can lead to expensive plumbing repairs, property damage, and other disasters like mold growth. Ice in a residential plumbing pipe can exert more than 2,000 psi of pressure. Your pipes aren’t designed to handle this kind of force, and they will burst. There are a few things you can do to keep your pipes in good shape in the winter, no matter how low the outside temperature may go!
First, keeping pipes thawed relies on heat. If you plan to leave your home for any length of time (even during the day while you work) do not set your thermostat lower than 62°F. Your home’s plumbing is often found encased in walls, unheated crawl spaces or in the basement of your home. Some of the heat from the living spaces and duct work in your home will help to keep these areas warm, but this type of heat will only go so far. The warmer your living space is, the warmer the unheated areas of your home will stay and the less likely you are to experience a frozen or burst pipe.
Insulate the pipes in your home. This will help keep the pipes warmer and will also help prevent radiant heat loss along your hot water pipes. Pipes in and near outside walls and crawlspaces are the most likely candidates for freezing so be sure to keep these as warm as possible.
Be very careful about the pipes that enter the home from outside. This would include your main water line and any outdoor spigots you may use for gardening or home maintenance. A shutoff valve should protect your outdoor taps. Every fall, close this shutoff valve and drain any standing water out of the outdoor taps. Remove any garden hoses and store them for the winter. Also drain any standing water from your sprinkler system, if one is installed. This will protect these systems from expansion damage that standing water could otherwise cause.
If you use rain barrels, dry wells or other rainwater run off collectors, drain these for the winter. Clean your gutters, too! This isn’t strictly a plumbing tip, but plugged gutters will cause backups in the downspouts and severe icing along your eaves, which can force water into your home.
If a pipe in your home has frozen but has not yet burst, you can thaw it out. Do not use any type of open flame (such as a torch) to melt the ice. This creates a high risk of fire, as well as a high risk of personal injury. Open the tap and locate the frozen area. This area may be frosted over on the outside due to condensation. The pipe may also be deformed in the critical spot. Heat the pipe from the tap back toward the frozen spot. You want to clear out the pipe, and if you start from the frozen point, the newly melted water may have nowhere to go.
You can heat exposed pipes using a hair dryer, an incandescent or infrared light, or a space heater. Use foil, a cookie sheet or rolled aluminum behind the pipe to reflect heat evenly around the pipe. You can also use “heat tape” to help warm up the pipes. If your frozen piping is below a sink, open the doors to the base cabinet and circulate warmer air around the pipes.
If your pipe is unexposed, you may need to remove drywall or plaster to expose the pipe. If you don’t want to do that, turn up the heat in the home and wait or use an infrared heat source to help warm the hidden pipes. If the pipe bursts while you’re trying to thaw it (a real possibility), turn off the water at the main shutoff immediately. At this point, you will have to expose the pipe to repair the damage and dry up the water.
If you think you may have frozen pipes or your pipes are in danger of freezing, you can call Boston Standard Plumbing at (617) 288-2911. We offer emergency plumbing services and can help you assess the condition of your plumbing, turn off the water, thaw pipes and make any needed repairs.