A guide to frozen pipes Part 1

Here at the Jim Black Construction headquarters in Colorado, we’re getting into the coldest and snowiest parts of winter. We’ve already had a few negative temperatures and a lot of work come in from pipes freezing, breaking, and causing quite the mess when the water starts flowing again. Since, statistically, Colorado gets the most snow and inclement weather in February and March, here’s our list of resources and tips for how to avoid your pipes freezing, what to do if you think you have a frozen pipe, and the steps to take if a pipe does break, brought to you in a detailed three part series.

Keeping the pipes from freezing:

Water has a unique property in that it expands as it freezes. This expansion puts tremendous pressure on whatever is containing it, including metal or plastic pipes. No matter the “strength” of a container, expanding water can cause pipes to break. — Preventing and Thawing Frozen Pipes by RedCross.org

Most of us already know to winterize sprinkler lines and to disconnect hoses from exterior lines. Slightly advanced, but still fairly common, knowledge includes leaving the exterior valves open to give freezing water more leeway when it expands. But what do you do when the temperatures are dropping lower and lower, where even the pipes in your home are at risk?

First of all, know which pipes are in the most danger of freezing. Pipes are most likely to freeze in areas that have immediate access to the exterior, colder temperatures, such as an attic or crawl space. These areas are going to get very little of the heat that would otherwise warm your home and keep your pipes ice free. Basements can be another problem area, especially if pipes are located in unfinished areas or the entire basement is unfinished, again, because of less access to the heat otherwise keeping the house warm. Pipes in and around exterior walls are also in danger if there isn’t enough insulation when temperatures get very low.

Only one of these is actually useful in keeping your pipes insulated.

Only one of these is actually useful in keeping your pipes insulated.

The easiest way to fix this is to get those pipes insulated. Even the foam pipe insulation, which tends to look like a dark grey pool noodle you can pop onto your pipes, will provide the needed extra protection against those dangerous, frigid temperatures and can be found at every home repair retailer I’ve ever been to for about $1.50 to $3.00 for a 6 ft section. These even work inside walls and attics, though these and other areas that would strongly benefit from better or more insulation in general, it will mostly likely be worth it to pop for the additional home insulation over something so localized. (It will help your heating and cooling bills throughout the year!)

Another good trick is to keep a trickle of water running. Even a gentle drip from a few faucets can make a big difference. Why? Ever notice how a river may have frozen parts, or frozen chunks in it, but the main flow in the center rarely freezes? Moving water can still freeze given the right conditions, but it becomes much harder due to a lot of complicated variables. In this case, part of it is that the water will be moving through both warm a cold spots within your home, lessening the chances that the water gets cold enough to completely freeze. Yes, your water bill may be a bit higher, but I can promise it’s a lot cheaper than needing major plumbing repairs and having your home flooded. The other advantage to this is it helps combat frozen pipes both inside the house and from the main line connection.

Yes, that is this home's main shut off valve mostly submerged underwater. Having a break in the main line can still cause a big mess inside the home and greatly increase water bills.

Yes, that is this home’s main shut off valve mostly submerged underwater. Having a break in the main line can still cause a big mess inside the home and greatly increase water bills.

Most people turn their thermostat down when they go out of town which, if they’re traveling in the winter months, can expose their pipes to greater danger. It is recommended to never have your thermostat set lower than 55 degrees. In typical cold weather, this is usually enough heat to keep you safe, but if you’re seeing temperatures plunging into single digits or negatives, it’s worth sending a neighbor or friend over to turn up the heat for the worst of the weather. This is true even in homes that have been winterized as even small amounts of leftover water and condensation in the wrong area can have devastating results.

This is an extreme case from a foreclosed property, but coming home from vacation to any variation of this is not something you want to do.

This is an extreme case from a foreclosed property, but coming home from vacation to any variation of this is not something you want to do.

In our next installment on frozen pipes, we’ll go over what to do if you suspect you have a frozen pipe, the right way to thaw a pipe, and what to look for in an actual pipe burst. Until then, wishing you safety and warmth from all of us at JBC!

(A special thanks to Paul from Denver Area Mortgage Field Services for letting us use some of his photos. See his website here or say hello to him on Facebook here.)

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