How to Prevent Frozen Pipes in the Home

Written by | Updated November 22, 2019

During severe cold weather, exposed pipes are vulnerable to freezing. Frozen pipes can occur when the water sitting in pipes begins to freeze and expand. 

Why do pipes burst?

As water turns to ice, it takes up more space and places the pipes under increasing internal pressure until they burst. According to Home Advisor, the cost of repairing and cleaning up water damage to your home averages $2,701 per incident, which could be avoided by common sense and inexpensive prevention measures.1

Pipes in exterior walls, crawl spaces, or outdoor faucets are especially sensitive to bursting when exposed to frigid or exceptionally cold air for long periods. The good news is there are several things you can do to keep pipes from freezing.

Steps to Prevent Broken Pipes

Here are a few foolproof methods to thaw frozen pipes slowly so they don’t burst and cause water damage to your home.

  1. Insulate your pipes
  2. Keep the heat on
  3. Let the faucet drip
  4. Thaw carefully
  5. Call a plumber

1. Insulate your pipes

Insulating your pipes is an inexpensive first step to preventing burst pipes. Focus on any outdoor pipes or faucets or any areas of your home that have a water supply but are not well heated. You can wrap pipes with foam covers or use electric heating lines like the ones recommended below to warm pipes and prevent freezing.

Make sure your home also has adequate insulation, especially along exterior walls and in crawl spaces. Putting some additional insulation in the walls, attic, or along the overhanging eaves of your home is an inexpensive way to avoid the costly water damage associated with pipe bursts.

HEATIT Self Regulating Pipe Heating Cable
HEATIT Self Regulating Pipe Heating Cable

This automatic pipe warmer is a step above foam pipe insulators and kicks in when the temperature falls below 37°F/3°C.

  • Turns on automatically
  • Works for plastic or metal pipes
  • Needs a power source

2. Keep the heat on

Even if you leave on vacation in the cold weather, you should keep the thermostat in your home set to somewhere around 55 degrees to prevent frozen pipes. However, this precaution won’t always be enough to ensure water sitting in your pipes won’t freeze during severe cold snaps. 

Follow these additional steps to protect your pipes when you’re away or for areas of the house that aren’t well heated.

  • Open vanity and cabinet doors to expose pipes to warm air
  • Keep air circulating with your HVAC
  • Leave interior bedroom, bathroom, and kitchen doors open 
  • Close the garage door
  • Seal up cracks and holes near windows and exterior doors

If you’re at home, you can use a space heater to keep chilly spaces warm, but don’t leave one on when you’re away as it could pose a fire risk.

AmazonBasics 500-Watt Ceramic Small Space Personal Mini Heater

This personal space heater is perfect for providing a little extra warmth in small rooms.

  • Tip-over safety shut off
  • Fast-heating ceramic construction
  • Affordable price
  • Compact design

3. Let the faucet drip

Leaving the faucet on seems like a terrible idea, but it’s something plumbers advise doing when you’ll be away for a while. Having the water slightly running will ease pressure and keep things moving in those cold pipes. This hack comes with a few caveats, however. If the faucet you’re considering leaving open has both cold and hot water, turn both on equally and make sure the flow is a drip and not a steady stream.

Outdoor faucets are an entirely different story. You should close any valves supplying outdoor water in the winter and disconnect and drain hoses until warmer temperatures arrive.

Pro-Tip

How many faucets should I let drip? This is a tricky question. One faucet should be enough, but it needs to be in the right location. Figure out where the water enters your home and turn on a faucet that’s farthest away so that the water is forced to move through the entire pipe system.

4. Thaw carefully

If you suspect your pipes are frozen, you may have a window of time to thaw them out before they burst and cause significant water damage to your home. Here’s what you should do.

Step 1: Determine which pipes are frozen. If you turn on a faucet and no water comes out, chances are the frozen pipe is nearby. Get under the sink to look for telltale frost on the pipes or bulges in the waterline.

Step 2: Open the faucet. In the same way you turn on faucets to prevent pipe freeze and to keep water moving, you can turn the faucet on to relieve pressure. Just be sure to turn on both cold and hot water full throttle while you’re attempting to thaw the pipes.

Step 3: Apply heat or warmth starting at the faucet. If you can access the pipes you suspect are frozen, start at the faucet and work your way down with a gentle heat source (not an open flame) such as a hairdryer, small ceramic space heater, hot towels, or even electric heating cables. Even if you get a few sudden gushes, don’t stop applying heat until full water pressure is restored.

If the pipe is behind a wall, there isn’t much you can do unless you’re willing to cut into the drywall. We advise calling a professional and turning up the heat until help arrives.

5. Call a plumber

Sometimes you need to call in the professionals, especially when you’re dealing with a problem that could result in disaster for your home. Water damage and freezing are the third most expensive and the second most frequent causes, respectively, of property damage according to the Insurance Information Institute.2

If the pipe has cracked, has already burst, or is behind a wall, you should contact a plumber immediately. Getting leaks addressed promptly by a professional is particularly important to prevent further damage and to stop the spread of mold.

FAQs

At what temperature do pipes freeze?

Water freezes at 32℉ so you should begin preparing your home for winter as soon as nighttime temperatures reach this threshold. Turn off outside spigots and water sources, drain hoses and store them, and insulate exposed pipes before subzero weather arrives. Your pipes probably aren’t in danger of freezing until temperatures drop below 20 degrees, but it’s always better to be safe than sorry.

In addition to insulating my pipes, what else should I do to prepare my home for winter?

Frozen pipes are just one of the concerns cold weather season brings. Check out our winter safety guide for more steps homeowners can take to avoid property damage, including preventing ice dams and inspecting your roof to ensure it’ll stand up to storms.

Should I always let faucets drip a bit in cold weather?

Unless you leave for an extended period or you have an area of your home that isn’t well insulated, it’s not necessary to leave your faucets dripping all winter. Your normal water usage should be adequate to keep water moving through pipes and prevent freezing. If you do have concerns about your house, use our guide to winterizing your home to batten down the hatches and keep things cozy. 

How do I keep pipes from freezing without heat?

Winter storms can knock out power and leave homeowners stranded without heat. As temperatures inside the house begin to fall, your pipes could run the risk of freezing. 

Use the shutoff valve to cut off all water supply to your home, then open the faucets to let the water drain from the pipes. You can also flush toilets and use denatured alcohol in the bowls to prevent the traps from freezing. If the power outage continues for several days, drain your furnace boiler by turning off the emergency switch and releasing water through the valve at the bottom.

Can I use an electric water line heater?

Electronic water line heaters are a good solution for preventing frozen pipes, but they’re too expensive to run through the entire water pipe system of your home. Usually, these electronic cable heaters come in shorter lengths for specific applications and are like the lines you’d run through gutters or on the roof to prevent ice dams and icicle buildup. You’ll need to position these pipe heaters near a power source, and you’ll usually have only about 12–20 feet of cable length to work with, so plan accordingly.

Written by Kaz Weida

Kaz is a journalist who covers home security, parenting, and community and child safety. Her work and product testing in the security and safety field spans the past four years. You can find Kaz in HuffPost, SheKnows, Lifehack, and much more. Her degree in education and her background as a teacher and a parent make her uniquely suited to offer practical advice on creating safe environments for your family. Learn more

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