Maintenance – How to Handle Cold Weather Issues
issues change with the seasons. In the winter, things get particularly
interesting, as two elements come together: water and sub-freezing
temperatures. The cold season means your pipes–as well as any other household
systems that consume water–are at risk. In addition, family habits change
during the winter. As people spend more time inside, water consumption rises, putting an
extra load on pipes, drains and water heaters. This winter, protect your
property and your family’s comfort by following these plumbing maintenance tips.
Here are some ways to
reduce heat loss from pipes:
- Just as it helps retard heat loss from your
home, insulation can keep your pipes from losing those last few
degrees of heat energy. Exposed pipes—both cold water and hot water—in areas
like a crawl space, basement or attic can be covered with foam pipe insulation
sleeves or wrapped with pipe insulation tape. Electrical heat tape can be
applied to short spans of pipe in areas that may be particularly prone to
- Warm air circulating throughout the home during very cold
weather also benefits plumbing below floors and inside walls that may be
susceptible to freezing. Maintain interior temperatures of at least 55 degrees,
and open cabinets under sinks and close to exterior walls to transmit household
heat to the pipes.
- Vents that admit outdoor air to the crawl space should be shut.
This allows heat in the living space to get into the crawl space and provide
some protection against freezing in any pipes routed through that zone. Also,
keep the exterior garage door closed if any plumbing is installed there.
- It’s long been known that opening faucets in the house just
enough to emit a trickle of water, and leaving them running during any period
when temperatures drop below the pipe-freezing threshold is an effective way to
prevent damage to pipes. But it’s not the small movement of water through the
pipes that prevents freezing—after all, even rapidly moving water freezes in
streams and waterfalls. The fact is, frozen pipes don’t rupture because of the
force of ice expanding outward. Instead, ice forming in the pipe expands
laterally and pressurizes water trapped in the pipe between the site of the ice
formation and a closed faucet or other outlet. This over-pressurized water is
the force that actually ruptures the pipe. Opening faucets slightly throughout
the house and allowing them to dribble provides pressure relief and fends off
Some homes have quite a
bit of ancillary household plumbing that’s outside, and this is even more
vulnerable to freezing. In some cases, freezing in exterior plumbing can affect
indoor pipes. Here are some examples.
- Garden hoses left outdoors may still be filled with water from
the most recent use. Garden hoses with nozzles or other terminators at one end
and connected to open faucets are particularly hazardous to your plumbing, as
water pressure created by ice formation in the hose may back into the home’s
water supply and damage pipes. Disconnect garden hoses, and drain them during
- If your outdoor faucets have indoor shut-off valves in the
basement, crawl space or elsewhere, turn off the water to the faucet during freeze
conditions, and open the outdoor faucet to drain residual water out of the
- Check the owner’s manual for your home sprinkler system, and
follow the procedures to winter-proof the sprinkler pipes and protect them from
- If you have a sump pump in your basement to
prevent flooding, keep an eye on the sump pump outlet pipe, usually somewhere
behind the house. Make sure the outlet is not blocked by fallen snow or an
iced-over puddle. If the pump should activate when the outlet is blocked, water
flow may reverse into the basement.
- Other outdoor water lines that may freeze include pipes leading
to a swimming pool, fountain or garden pond. The general plumbing maintenance
rule is to shut off water to these uses at the source, then drain the lines.
If Worse Comes to Worse
If your pipes freeze
despite proper plumbing maintenance measures, you need immediate professional help. Don’t wait for the pipes to thaw so you can
verify damage. Pipe ruptures may occur some place distant from the actual
site of ice formation and may be concealed within inaccessible spaces. Water
damage can be extensive before you are able to locate and evaluate the problem.
During freeze conditions, be alert to any unexplained decline in water pressure
or a complete cessation of water at any faucet or other outlet. These are red
flags that should not be ignored. Turn off household
water at the main supply valve, and contact a reputable plumbing
Winter’s an indoor season
for many. This means the demand on your plumbing system rises. Also, the number
of guests and festivities in your home rises with the holiday season, and this
also increases demand on your plumbing system. A few maintenance guidelines can
help to keep your supply lines and drains running freely.
- Grease and oil from cooking are major components of pipe sludge
that causes clogs. When drain pipes are cold in the winter, the sludge tends to
congeal in pipes. Try to collect grease and oil in containers rather than
pouring them down the sink.
- Cold weather puts a stain on hot water heaters. Because water lines are
chilled, the water supply entering the hot water heater is much colder and requires
more energy and longer recovery time. Space out shower and bathroom times to
allow the heater to bring the full tank of water up to the thermostat setting
before placing more demand on the system. If the water temperature lags because
of cold plumbing, try bumping up the water heater thermostat a few degrees. Don’t
exceed 125 degrees, though, as this may create a scalding hazard.
- Run the dishwasher overnight or at some other low-demand time to
minimize stress on the water heater.