During the winter months, frozen pipes can be a problem. Fortunately they are preventable. There are several things you can do, both temporary and semi-permanent, to keep pipes from freezing. They’re all pretty cheap and easy and worth doing.
Frozen pipes are most likely to happen when the temperature drops to well below freezing and stays there for a sustained length of time. But a bit of heat and/or water movement is enough to keep indoor pipes from freezing.
How dangerous is a frozen pipe?
I don’t want to minimize the damage that a frozen pipe can cause, because if a pipe does freeze and burst, it’s a problem. It’s as bad as you’re imagining, if not worse.
But I also think we overestimate the likelihood of a pipe freezing and bursting. It doesn’t freeze and burst right away, and we get plenty of warning before the pipe reaches the point of no return. I can tell you from experience when your kitchen pipes freeze, you don’t wake up to a kitchen or a basement full of water gushing out of the exploded remains of your dear departed copper pipe. You go to the faucet and turn it on, and there’s no water. The faucet may sputter and make other noises and a small trickle of water may come out, but then there’s basically nothing, because there’s ice forming somewhere in the pipes blocking the water behind it.
And at that point in time, there’s still plenty of time to take corrective action. When I retired my incandescent light bulbs, I didn’t throw out the ones that still worked. Open up your cabinet, grab an ordinary lamp, screw an incandescent bulb into it and turn it on, and set the lamp as close to the opening as you can. The heat from the bulb will thaw the pipe. It takes some time, but copper is a good conductor of heat, and the water behind the blockage is probably 55 degrees, so that ice is fighting a losing battle.
If you don’t have any old incandescent bulbs around anymore, you can still buy one. I don’t recommend them for everyday use because they’re expensive and inefficient, but the $3 it costs to get one to thaw pipes is well worth the money.
How to keep pipes from freezing
Of course, keeping pipes from freezing in the first place is even better than knowing how to thaw them. There are several things you can do, and none of them are terribly expensive.
Let the water trickle overnight
The easiest thing you can do is turn the water on just enough that it drips. Just the slow drip-drip-drip that will drive you crazy. That alone keeps enough water moving that the pipe won’t freeze. If you don’t want to waste that water, put a bowl under the faucet to collect it. You can use that water to water plants, or give it to your pets. I don’t recommend it for human consumption, but it’s fine for pet consumption. They have stronger immune systems than we do.
The cost of doing this varies, but where I live, this costs less than a penny to do.
Open up your cabinets
If you open up your cabinets, that lets heat from the room get to your pipes. That ambient heat can be enough to keep the water in the pipe from freezing. It isn’t foolproof, but it costs even less than the water trick. If you do both, that’s even more effective.
If it’s going to be bitter cold, you can open the cabinets and put a lamp with an incandescent bulb in it next to it.
Insulate your pipes
The most effective semi-permanent fix is to insulate your pipes. Home improvement stores sell pipe insulation, which is a cylindrical piece of foam that snaps onto your pipe. A 6-foot length of insulation costs less than $3. Just make sure you get the right size for your pipe, as pipe thickness can vary from half an inch to an inch.
The most expensive type has an adhesive to seal it together. That’s what I usually use, but you can get away with getting the cheap stuff without adhesive and just snap it on. The tiny gap doesn’t let much heat escape. Just cut it to length, snap it into place, remove the adhesive backing, and stick the two sides together. Insulate both your cold and hot water pipes.
This keeps your pipes from freezing but it also can save you money by keeping your hot water hot in the pipe between your sink and the hot water heater. I only bother to insulate my cold water pipes where they’re up against a wall and can get cold in winter, but I insulate my hot water pipes all the way back to 18 inches from the hot water heater, since local code says I have to leave that part uninsulated. I wouldn’t say it saves me a fortune, but it cost me about $10 to do. And when I turn on the hot water, I have hot water right away. It’s nice not having to wait for the water to heat up.
Insulate your overhang if your kitchen is in one
My kitchen has an overhang, which makes my pipes more prone to freeze. Insulating my overhang helped a lot, and it wasn’t a difficult or expensive project.
And while it only helps indirectly, putting window insulation film on your kitchen windows certainly doesn’t hurt.
Leave a light on
A trick my home inspector told me is to leave an incandescent bulb on in the basement overnight near the pipes. This is probably less effective and less necessary if you’ve insulated your pipes, and I haven’t had any need to do it since I insulated my pipes and my overhang. But it doesn’t hurt. The light won’t do much to warm the pipes, but it’ll warm the air around the pipes, which is what causes the freezing in the first place.
I once bought a vacant house in the winter and couldn’t get the gas turned on right away to heat it, because it wouldn’t pass a gas inspection without a repair and the purchaser wouldn’t allow any repairs. Turning on an incandescent light in the basement was enough to protect the pipes for several days until we could get through closing and get the repairs done.
Protecting outdoor pipes
Today you can get outdoor faucets that can survive subzero temperatures. But it’s still not a bad idea to take preventative measures on your outdoor pipes. Your outdoor faucets will have shutoff valves inside near the faucet. Just turn the shutoff valve to shut off the water, then turn the faucet on to drain most of it. That’s all it takes to protect your outdoor pipes. You can do this at the end of fall, and just turn the outdoor faucets back on when spring comes.