As a home inspector, it’s my job to protect people from unwelcome surprises in their homes. In some cases, I can do that by simply providing the best home inspection possible. Sometimes, though, these nasty surprises are unavoidable.
If you’ve lived in Alberta for any length of time, you know that frozen pipes are a common occurrence, especially when the weather drops below -20°C in the coldest months of the year.
Sometimes a frozen pipe will crack or burst, which is far more expensive and time-consuming to deal with. Frozen water increases in volume by about 9%, which means there is a lot of pressure pushing outward on that pipe. If you can stop the water from freezing all the way through and reheat your pipes, you may be able to prevent cracks or bursts that lead to hefty repair bills.
How to Prevent Pipes from Freezing Up
Seal up Exterior Holes and Cracks that Leak Cold Air
Even small cracks in your home’s exterior can let in enough cold air to freeze your pipes. Make sure your home’s exterior is fully sealed. In my home inspections, I use thermal imaging to find places where cold air is leaking into a house from the exterior. If you can’t get access to thermal imaging, simply inspect the outside of your home, paying close attention to outlets, outdoor valves, and other potential points of entry.
Disconnect Outdoor Hoses and Shut off Interior Valves to Exterior Faucets
If you leave your outdoor hose connected with the valve turned on, you risk freezing this pipe and others in your home, so be sure to turn your hose valve off for the winter! You can also put an insulated covering on outdoor faucets in the colder months for added protection.
Keep the Heat on in Your House, Even if You’ll Be Away
If you’re heading south for the winter, don’t leave your home in the cold. You can lower the temperature a bit, but keep the furnace running. The savings in energy aren’t worth the risk of bursting pipes! Also be sure to keep all interior doors in your home open so specific rooms don’t get cold.
How to Thaw Out a Frozen Pipe to Prevent Bursting
Check Which Pipes are Frozen
To find out which pipes need unthawing, check all areas of your house that have running water. Anywhere water isn’t flowing (or isn’t flowing well) will indicate a frozen pipe. Once you’re looking at the pipes directly (if they’re not in a wall), you can look for freezing or condensation on the outside of the pipe or tap gently on the pipe with something hard to see if it sounds solid. Another indication of a frozen pipe is a slight outward bulge.
Unthaw Your Pipes Slowly
Once you know where to start, you’ll want to unthaw your pipes at an even pace. Always start reheating the pipe closest to the nearest faucet so any steam created can escape the pipe easily, which can prevent it from bursting due to excess pressure.
Your solution will also depend on how much access you have to the pipe. If it’s located somewhere you can reach it, you can use direct methods that will work faster. However, if the pipe in question is located in the wall, you’ll have to work a little harder to make sure it unfreezes quickly.
Direct methods include:
1. A hairdryer directed at the pipe
2. Hot towels wrapped around the pipe
Indirect methods include:
1. Turning up the furnace and blocking air vents in other areas of the house to direct heat to the room in question
2. Space heaters and fan heaters directed at a wall
Never use open flame devices to reheat your pipes, and don’t leave devices unattended, as there is always the risk of fire when you’re applying targeted heat like this.
Be sure to look out for issues that could indicate a burst or cracked pipe after you’ve thawed it. A few indicators include:
– Low water pressure
– Damp areas in your walls or ceilings
– Noises in the pipes
If a Pipe Bursts
If a pipe cracks or bursts, it’s time to call for help! Contact a professional plumber in your area, and in the meantime, shut off the main water line to your property to prevent flooding.
The Best Step in Prevention is Knowing the Risks
Like any part of your home, knowing where everything is located and which risks you can mitigate is the best plan for preventing issues. If you’re buying a new home, be sure to call a certified home inspector who can provide a thorough inspection and walk you through prevention and maintenance.