Winter is back and so is that – dare we say it – polar vortex! We’ve already had our first taste of below-zero temperatures, which has many of us thinking about vacationing in a warmer climate. If you’re doing more than thinking about it – if you’re planning to take a trip away from home this season – you should take steps to protect your home by winterizing your plumbing.
Frozen pipes can be more than a temporary inconvenience. Left unchecked, a frozen pipe could burst, leading to significant water damage and creating an environment where mold can thrive. But by following simple winterizing steps, you can keep your plumbing intact despite the freezing temperatures.
Tip #1: Turn Off Your Water Supply
Turning off your water supply and draining your pipes is the best way to protect your pipes from freezing if you’re going to be away for an extended period of time. Note: If your home is heated by an older steam heating system, consult with your HVAC professional to determine if it is safe to turn off the water supply. Also, if your home is protected by a fire sprinkler system, do not turn off the water to this system.
- First, turn off the main water supply line by turning the shutoff valve to the “off’ position. If the valve is difficult to move, spray it with a lightweight penetrating oil, wait a few minutes, then try again.
- Next, drain your pipes of all water by opening the faucets and flushing your toilets to clear the water from the tank and bowl. If you want to make sure your pipes are completely drained, contact a plumber, who can blow compressed air through them.
- Shut off the water to washing machines and dishwashers, where possible, to avoid any leaks or broken hoses while you’re away.
- Pour non-toxic antifreeze rated for plumbing systems into the toilet tanks and bowls. This will prevent any remaining water from potentially freezing and causing damage.
Tip #2: Shut Off the Outside Water Supply
Think a frozen garden hose is no big deal? Think again! If your outdoor hose is left connected to a spigot, freezing water trapped inside can lead to damaged interior pipes. That’s because when the water in the hose freezes, it expands, increasing pressure throughout the whole plumbing system.
As part of your regular seasonal maintenance, garden hoses should be disconnected, drained, and stored before the first hard freeze. In fact, if you wind the up and store them before fall’s first frost (or on warm day shortly after), you’ll make the job a lot easier – a warm hose is always more flexible and easy to put away than a cold one.
If you don’t have frost-proof spigots, follow these steps to prevent damage:
- Close the interior shut-off valve leading to that faucet.
- Open and drain the spigot.
- Install a faucet insulator (you can find these inexpensive items at your local hardware store).
Tip #3: Keep Your Home & Plumbing Warm While You’re Away
If it’s not possible for you to completely turn off your water supply, you’ll want to keep your home and the pipes within warm to prevent freezing.
- Set the temperature on your home’s thermostat to 55°F or higher to help keep the interior of the floor and wall cavities (where the water pipes are usually located) above freezing. Keep room and cabinet doors open to circulate heat around the house and warm the areas where pipes may be located.
- Turn off the heat source and water supply to hot water heaters (if separate from your boiler).
- If possible, have a water-flow sensor and low-temperature sensor installed on your main water supply pipe and tie it to a monitored alarm system. Many of these sensors even have an app that links to your smart phone, alerting you to potential problems whenever they happen.
Tip #4: Insulate Exposed Plumbing
Pipes located in unheated areas of the home, such as an attic, crawl space, and garage, are at the highest risk of freezing. Often, inexpensive foam pipe insulation is enough to protect them in moderately cold climates. But for severe temperatures, you can wrap them with thermostatically controlled heat tape (from $50 to $200, depending on length), which will engage and warm the pipes when the temperature dips below a preset level.
Sometimes pipes located near exterior walls are also in danger of freezing if the walls are inadequately insulated. Telltale signs of past freezing include water damage and mold or moisture build up. Often, these pipes require more extensive measures, such as beefing up the insulation in the wall or rerouting the pipe itself. But these repairs are minor compared to the work required to complete basement cleanup and renovation when a pipe freezes and bursts.
Winterizing your home’s plumbing before you head off on vacation is quick and easy. This ounce of prevention can be worth thousands of dollars in repairs – not to mention the disappointment of having your vacation cut short by a plumbing emergency. It’s one kind of travel insurance you won’t want to leave home without!
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