Frozen Pipes Are Easy To Avoid

Has the cold winter weather brought you the unpleasant surprised of a frozen pipe in your home?  If so, don’t panic, take advantage of these extreme weather conditions to trouble shoot the problem and solve it before you have property damage due to broken water supply piping or the next cold snap.

Having been in the custom home building business for the past 28 years with BROM Builders, Inc., I’ve seen all types of frozen pipes and many friends and acquaintances have asked for advice on how to fix that problem.  There are a couple of types of frozen pipe problems that are most common.

First, the outside hose faucets in most new homes are “frost free”, but that’s only true if the homeowner removes the hose from the faucet so the water can drain from the faucet body.  On those fixtures, the valve body is generally about 12″ in from the outside of the home in a the basement and that’s generally above freezing.  If you leave a hose connected, the water can’t drain out of the body of the valve and when the water freezes, it expands and cracks the hose bib faucet body.  This type of problem normally doesn’t show up until spring time when the homeowner uses the faucet for the first time in the spring time and then they find water flowing down the foundation wall in their basement (out of the cracked faucet body).  The fix is a replacement of the valve body.  Occasionally, these valves on today’s super insulated homes are covered with insulation and they might still freeze due to the lack of heat being able to get to the exterior side of the valve seat.  I often recommend moving the basement ceiling insulation to run above these valves (just the last 6″ of the valve body – you want to keep the exterior rim joist insulation in place on the exterior 6″ of the valve body in place) so they are exposed and then the ambient air from the basement can get to them and keep them warm.  So to avoid this type of nuisance plumbing problem, simply remove your outside hoses from the outside faucets.  If you are in an older home where there is not a frost-free valve, then you also need to continue doing your seasonal shutting down the valves from inside the home and then leave the outside valve in the open position.

Second, for those who have outside showers, these plumbing features need to be drained down seasonally, modern showers have pressure balancing valves and some times the cartridge needs to be removed so the shower diverter doesn’t freeze/crack.  Many times you can simply put the diverter into the warm position and that will allow for the hot and cold supply sides to drain out properly.

Third type of frozen pipe is an interior supply pipe to a plumbing fixture on the interior of the home.  These types of problems are commonly caused not by the lack of insulation, but are actually caused by air movement through the wall or floor assembly.  Insulation doesn’t stop air movement.  I’ve seen this type of problem most commonly in older homes where the holes drilled in the top or bottom of the wall for plumbing or electrical wiring isn’t sealed.  The fix is to seal those holes around the plumbing and wiring to eliminate air flow.

Now if you have extreme cold and find a fixture has lost water supply due to a frozen pipe, first thing to do is open the fixture valve on both the hot and cold side.  When water freezes, it expands and if the valve is open, you can often prevent a burst supply pipe by eliminating the pressure increase – it’s the pressure increase that breaks the pipe and not the frozen water.

Here are a few tips on how to avoid frozen pipes in a home:

1.  In extreme weather conditions, it’s often a good idea to NOT use setback thermostat settings if your home has a history of frozen pipes since dropping 10-15 degrees at night can be just enough to cause the freeze.  See, there’s a battle zone waged between hot/cold sides of a wall that’s only 3.5″ or 5.5″ thick.  If the inside of the home is 68 degrees and it’s only 5 degrees outside, where do you think it will be <32 degrees in the wall or floor assembly.  Supply plumbing shouldn’t be in the outside walls in cold climates.

2. Cabinet or vanity doors can be left open to let the room heat get into the cabinetry and to the water supply area.  Some say leave the water running slowly, but that’s also wasteful.

3.  Look for areas of air leakage and eliminated those sources of cold.  Remember, insulation doesn’t stop air movement, only solid wood blocking, foam sealers or caulking or insulation boards will do the trick.

4.  If you have a large home and you are using a fireplace or wood stove, often the home’s heating system thermostat gets “tricked” by the heat generated by the stove or fireplace.  That can cause the extremities of the home away from the fireplace or wood stove to become cold.  If you have a warm air system, changing from automatic fan setting to manual ON will more evenly distribute the air around your home.  Also, don’t forget that if you are using a conventional fireplace, they are extremely INEFFICIENT in that they normally draw air from the inside of the home and that can cause the areas away from the home to be very cold as the makeup are is drawn in through the nooks and crannies of the building envelop.  To avoid this, either open the makeup air intake inside your firebox if you have one OR just crack open a window in the room where the fireplace is burning.  If you have a modern gas “direct-vent” sealed combustion fireplace (they have full solid glass panels in the front of the firebox that are not removable except to clean the glass) then you are all set since the makeup are is drawn down the outside of the exhaust pipe and none of the air from inside the home is used for combustion or drawn to the outside of the home when you use your fireplace.

Hope these ideas and tips help you out!!