Pesky Pipe Problems

By Chelle Cordero

July 12, 2019 5 min read

Two winters ago, Tim and Alice finished saving up and took their dream vacation. They left the cold weather behind and spent two weeks sunning in the Caribbean. They came home refreshed and were thrilled to see their driveway had been plowed by the contractor they'd hired. They didn't have a care in the world -- until they opened their front door

The entire downstairs in their beautiful two-story home was ankle-deep in water -- thanks to a burst pipe. After four months, the repairs were complete, but they can't replace many of the water-damaged mementoes they lost.

It was a harsh lesson to learn. Tim and Alice spoke with plumbers and with their insurance company to find out how to keep their pipes from freezing and bursting again. Here are some of the tips they were given:

When you are leaving your home for any extended period of time during the winter, it is OK to turn your thermostat down, but be careful about choosing a cold temperature setting. Even though water freezes at 32 F, that's way too low for your home thermostat. Your home is bound to have drafty corners, where the temperature may actually dip lower than in the rest of the house. Even in under-sink cabinets, pipes are often behind closed cabinet doors, where heat may not penetrate. If the cabinet is on an exterior wall, you have a prime setup for frozen pipes. Keep all interior doors open so that the air will circulate throughout your home. If water inside the pipe freezes, pressure will build up and may cause the pipe to burst.

It is generally considered safe to lower your thermostat to the mid-50s to compensate for some of the colder spots. Be sure to patch, plug or cover potential leaks, such as under your front door and around window frames. Cover attic fan gables, but remember to uncover them immediately upon your return. Adjust the temperature setting on automatic whole-house fans so they won't accidentally cycle on. Remember to close all of your windows (and lock them for security). Leave your under-sink cabinet doors open so that heat can circulate around those pipes as well. Don't forget to insulate outdoor and basement water sources. Wrap pipe insulation materials (found at your local hardware or home goods store) around any exposed pipes. If you can see it, wrap it.

If you are going to leave your house empty for an extended period of time, such as the entire winter, you might be tempted to turn off your heat altogether (it is still recommended to leave your thermostat set at low). If we cannot talk you out of it, at least take some modest precautions:

Make sure all of your pipes are insulated. Leave your faucets open just enough to drip slowly; the dripping water will help keep pressure from building up in the line. Be sure that all of your dripping faucet sink drains are clear and uncluttered to avoid water buildup overflowing the sink's rims.

When you return home, if the water from your faucets won't flow or the toilet does not refill after flushing, there's a good chance you have frozen pipes. If you find that your pipes are frozen -- and hopefully not burst -- you can slowly rewarm the pipes using a blow dryer or towels soaked in warm water. Another option is to wrap an electric heating pad around the pipe (but do not leave this unsupervised). Make sure your faucets are open and then heat the exposed pipes slowly. Keeping the faucets open as the ice thaws will allow water to flow rather than building up pressure. Refrain from using an open flame to thaw the pipes; aside from the obvious fire risk, an open flame may thaw the ice too rapidly, causing pressure to build up. Call a licensed plumber if trying to thaw the pipes yourself isn't doing the job.

If the pipes have already burst, call your plumber immediately, turn off the whole house's water supply to prevent more water buildup and turn off your electricity to prevent any short circuits caused by water touching live wires.

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