I’ve been in more than my fair share of homes that have been severely damaged as a result of flooding from frozen pipes that broke during cold spells. It is a messy and needless to say, “costly” nightmare that you can and should take steps to avoid.
Most people realize that they have a frozen pipe(s) because the water has stopped flowing. A section of the pipe has turned to ice and is now blocking the water flow. Just a temporary inconvenience right? Once the pipe thaws, all is good again?! Or is it? A disaster may very well be in the making.
Typically the most common areas of freezing happen in areas of the home or garage that don’t receive an adequate amount of heat. For example; pipes that are in exterior walls, in some cases attics, or backing up to a garage wall. These are typically the first ones to go. Often these are in bathrooms, kitchens and contained in cabinets and vanities in which the doors are closed. Often disasters are averted because you’re there to catch it quickly.
Here’s how the full-blown disaster happens:
The typical scenario is that the furnace stops working. Maybe the pilot light goes out, the electronic igniter decides to quit or some other furnace component develops a problem. Temperatures outside are in the freezing range. You’re gone for a few days or more. The temperature in your house is dropping fast. When the water in the affected pipes turn to ice, they will expand and very possibly cause the pipes to split open. Unless you actually can see the pipes and are aware that they have split, you will have no idea that this has occurred until the ice thaws and ice blockage is no longer there. Then, (assuming that the incoming water supply is on) all hell breaks loose! Once the blockage melts, the water begins to gush from the split areas. I’ve been in homes in which the owners were gone for a few days, or the property was vacant. during a cold spell. and even at my urging, no winterization precautions were taken. The furnace goes down and unknowingly and pipes are
splitting all around the house. Not only that, but the hot water heater freezes up and splits open as well! At first glance it just seems cold inside, no sounds or signs of running water, but then the outside temps rise back up and the ice thaws, water begins to flow and gush from the splits. You can only imagine the extent of the damage.Most of the time the breaks are behind walls. The now-needed plumbing, drywall, and paint repairs are expensive yet this doesn’t include any other damages to flooring, furniture, appliances, hot water heater, electronics and yes…the furnace itself! Repair costs can run into the ten’s of thousands. Keep in mind that pipes don’t always split open. Sometimes they just swell or do nothing at all. It depends on the duration and degree of the low room temperatures. Also, keep in mind that even the newer PEX plastic pipes can and will freeze and split.
Another very common location for pipe freezes are those in your sillcocks (aka: spigots, hose bibs, hose faucets). For most homeowners, it’s not a matter of “if” these pipes will rupture, it’s a matter of “when.” Even if you have a “frost proof” hose bib and you leave your garden hose connected during prolonged freezing temps, you are still running a high risk of it’s freezing and splitting. Unlike the other pipes discussed earlier, you won’t know you have a problem until the next time you open the valve to use your hose, probably months later. Chances are you won’t even realize you have a split hose bib pipe even then until you go in your basement and notice water where it’s not supposed to be. The water will not flow if the hose bib valve is off so when you’re investigating the source of the mysterious water, you may likely seem perplexed as to where it came from until the next time you open the valve see the water again and start to put the puzzle pieces together. Avoid this nightmare by simply disconnecting your hoses before it starts to get cold outside!
If you’re a DIY’r, you can replace hose bibs yourself. if you don’t mind trying to work in a confined space. (Usually above your head in the floor joists.) The last one I replaced was a piece of cake thanks to Sharkbite fittings which eliminate the need for pipe sweating (soldering), but if the break is in a finished area it will involve cutting an access hole and then drywall/paint repairs. Everything you need can be purchased at Home Depot, Lowes, etc.
What Precautions You Can Take
While You’re Home
Water has no sense of time and aside from splitting pipes, other water -damage causing issues could arise such as a sewer back-up or a burst hot-water heater. These things can and often happen while you’re home but you don’t know it until you enter the affected area of your basement.
- A Water Leakage Alarm is good investment. (About $11.00) When water hits the unit’s sensor (on the floor) a loud alarm is sounded. This is great if your there to hear it and the sensor is in the right place. So depending on the size of your basement you may need a few. But what if you’re gone? Step up to a Wifi Water Detector.
- Wifi Water Detector. These come in numerous configurations, types, style, prices and operating systems. They detect water leakage the same way as a non-wifi unit, but in addition to an audible alarm the unit will notify you via, email, text, etc. This is obviously the way to go if you’re not home when the water reaches the sensor. Do some shopping and comparisons to see which is best suited for you.
- Leave Cabinet Doors Open that Back to Outside Walls.
- Let outside-facing faucets slowly drip.
Freezing and breaking pipes cause the most extensive damage when a house is either vacant or no one is home at the time the big freeze occurs. This is because, there’s nobody there to notice or hear that water is running, so the water continues to flow, possibly for days or weeks. Eventually, someone will enter the house, or a neighbor may see or hear the water running outside the house. Obviously, by this time it’s too late. The damage has been done but at least the water will be turned off.
If You’ll Be Gone For a Few Days
If you’re going to be gone for a few days here are some other suggestions in addition to those mentioned above:
- Smart Thermostat – The most recognized brand in this segment is Nest. They were the first to market but now there are other brands to choose from. A Smart Thermostat will not notify you if water is leaking, but it will let you know if the temperature in your home is critically low so you can get the issue resolved in time to avert a pipe-freeze disaster.
- Make Access Available – Leaving a key or giving a garage door code to a neighbor, close-by friend or family member is ideal. Another option is to place a lockbox on the property.
- Set thermostat at 55-60 degrees. There’s no point in wasting energy or money to heat your home for comfort if you’re not going to be there. As long as your furnce is operating, a range of 55-60 degrees will prevent freezing pipes.
- Shut off the main water valve. If pipes should break, then the only water that will leak will be what’s already in the pipe(s). Damage to drywall, floors, etc. may ensue but it will be limited as the water will not continue to flow.
- Shut off Water to Hot Water Heater. This is also an option if you’re more concerned with the possibility that your hot water heater may break due to age. Typically, the bottom of the unit rusts out and the 40 or more gallons water in the tank floods the area. If the inlet valve is open, just as with other pipes, the water will continue to flow from the bottom of the broken hot water hear resulting in flooding.
What if you’ll be away for weeks or months?
Winterization. The only full-proof way to protect your home from pipe freezes and/or other water-related mishaps is to fully winterize your home. Full winterization will protect you even if your furnace goes out or have a full electrical outage. This is something that you can do yourself but I would recommend studying up on it first to make sure you don’t miss any steps. There are a lot of good YouTubes to watch on the subject.
Shutting off the main water valve.
Draining all of the faucets then blowing compressed air through the syste
Draining the hot water heater. Leaving drain valve open.
Setting thermostat between 55-60 degrees.
Adding RV (pink) antifreeze to toilets and drains.
Opening all faucets including showers, tubs and hose bibs.
Place caution placards to indicate that the property is winterized
Dewinterizing is Easy!
Make sure electric and furnace are working.
Close all faucets and valves previously closed.
Open main water valve.
Let how water heater and plumbing system refill
Flush toilets of RV Anti-freeze.
Reset thermostat to your comfort level.
Enjoy your home again!
One Word of Caution.
Never try to thaw out frozen pipes with a torch. This is a big source of house fires. If you have to thaw pipes, use a hairdryer or call a plumber.
Never set the thermostat to less than 60 degrees when the weather will be below zero.