Prevent Pipes from Bursting...and Fix Burst Pipes!
If you've never seen a burst water pipe -- or the damage one causes -- consider yourself lucky. According to Sate Farm Insurance, about 250,000 homes sustain water damage annually from this calamity, a result of frozen pipes. In fact, "damage" is too weak a word to describe the disastrous effect a water pipe can have when it gushes open inside your home.
We remodeled a basement that had a water pipe burst while the homeowners were on vacation. Water rose to about 6 inches in the 30 x 30-foot room and destroyed virtually everything in it: a pool table, clothes, electronics -- even a wedding dress. Had there not been a shower in the basement to help drain some of the water, it would have been worse.
They had to take quick action to clean it up -- and we don't just mean getting rid of the water. We mean removing soaked framing, drywall, paneling, carpets, and anything else that was at risk for mold and mildew issues. Not fun.
And that's just the basement. When water pipes burst on upper floors, everything below is suddenly at risk as water cascades across floors and around framing until it finally (and relentlessly) finds a way down to where it'll always reach: the lowest point.
Since water always wins, prevention is the best medicine, which means taking simple but effective action to make sure your pipes don't freeze and, ultimately, burst. A poorly insulated house can actually protect pipes in a sense, because the conditioned air inside the house keeps the wall cavity above from freezing. But when it gets really cold, the weather wins and the water in the pipes starts to freeze. If you don't catch it in time, that's all she wrote.
Risk Factors for Frozen and Burst Pipes
Any pipes that are situated in such a way that they can easily reach freezing temperatures are at risk. The most obvious are garden hoses. Others are less obvious and may even be totally hidden. Pipes that run across a garage ceiling, up an exterior wall that's not insulated, or under a crawl space are all classic examples. These vulnerable conditions tend to exist in old houses in which plumbing was retrofitted. It's not out of the question to see pipes situated this way in new houses, though. Not the wisest move, now that we know better.
Another sign you've got pipes on their way to the freezing point: water starts to run slowly (especially during deep freezes) or you find ice in your toilet.
Preventing Frozen Pipes: The easiest pipes to keep from freezing are the ones that are never exposed to freezing temperatures. If you have pipes that are exposed to freezing temperatures and have the chance to re-route them (or have a plumber re-route them) that's ideal.
Shut off/drain: Garden hoses are usually easy to shut off and drain. Inside the house -- usually near where the garden hose supply pipe exits the building -- there should be a shut-off valve, which you should shut off every autumn. Outside, open the spigot (there's a little water in there that needs to escape) and remove the garden hose. You should also drain your sprinkler system for the same reason.
In the old days, people used to shut entire wings of their houses down because they couldn't get heat to them. This included bathrooms which often have shut-off valves in their supply plumbing inside the house.
Insulate: Insulating wall cavities is remarkably helpful. If you're remodeling an entire room, adding insulation will be baseline. In other situations insulation can be blown into wall cavities, but it needs to surround the pipe to be effective, which may be tough to predict if you can't see it.
Pipes can also be wrapped with foam insulation, which helps the water inside maintain a regular temperature while it is in a cold location. (We do this with hot water pipes regardless of their exposure to freezing temperatures to help the water stay warmer longer, including inside walls.)
You should also insulate where pipes enter and exit the house. Spray foam insulation like Great Stuff is effective at knocking down drafts and keeping typically colder parts of a house (utility rooms, crawl spaces, etc.) warmer or easier to heat.
In a garage situation, you can add a gasket to the bottom of the door and add insulation to the door itself to help keep the area above freezing, but the reality is this will do more to help keep the inside of your house more comfortable than keep the unheated garage above freezing. You can also fabricate a soffit (a box) around the pipes and insulate it to help keep their temperature even. Again, it's 100% better than nothing but far from a guarantee unless the pipes can stay consistently above freezing no matter how cold it gets.
Heat tape: Most home centers sell heat tape. You wrap heat tape around a pipe and plug in to a receptacle. It can be effective in places like garages and crawlspaces where you can get to the pipe to wrap it, but it really only guards where it is wrapped (in this writer's experience). So if the pipe goes under a crawl space you can't reach or up a wall you can't access, it may not be guaranteed to work but it's 100% better than nothing.
Trickle: If you can't do any of the options above -- and that's common, especially in old homes -- opening both cold and hot water taps to a trickle can keep a pipes from freezing because the water is moving. However, this doesn't do as much good for a toilet, but periodic flushing might help.
Open doors: For rooms that get cold (that powder room in the far corner of the house for example), keeping the door to that room open can help. If the problem is under the kitchen counter, you can keep cabinet doors open (like at night before you go to bed). Granted, this is a highly impractical everyday solution.
Shut off water at the main: This is totally unscientific, but it almost seems like pipes actually prefer to burst -- whether frozen or not -- when homeowners aren't home and the water never really gets a chance to run all day or all week. The good news is that prevention is pretty easy: shut the water supply off at the main, where it enters the house near the water meter, next time you go on vacation (during the winter or summer). Also, open all your faucets to drain the system. When you get home, leave the faucets open, turn the main back on and let the water run until all the air is out of the system. (If you have pets and someone is watching your home, leave gallons of water for them to use.)
The main's knob is often difficult to turn (because it's rarely shut off). If you can't move yours, get a plumber in to replace it as soon as possible. I recommend the handle type (plumbers might call it a 'ball valve'). They're easier to operate.
Also, everyone (age-appropriate of course) in the house should know where the main is and how/when to use it.
Invest in RedyTemp: There is one product on the market that takes a different approach. RedyTemp is installed under a sink at the end of a plumbing run. The thermostatic device regularly sends heated water through your entire plumbing system preventing water from freezing in all locations according to the company.
Fixing Frozen Pipes
If your pipes have already frozen but haven't burst, take immediate action. What to do depends on where the pipe freezes, but generally speaking, if you can heat the pipes back up, you can avert disaster.
Blow dryer/Heat gun/Hot cloths: If you open the faucet on the sink and nothing comes out, it probably means your pipes are full of ice. Chances are they're not frozen in the room where the heat is, but somewhere upstream (in the garage, wall cavity or crawl space.) If you have access to them, try blowing hot air from a hair dryer or heat gun to melt the blockage and get you out of a jam. You might also heat the space with a heat lamp or space heater. And -- it goes without saying -- use heat-generating products according to manufacturer instructions to avoid house fires.
You can also heat up water on the stove, soak rags or cloths in there, then wrap the pipe. This works at thawing pipes, but takes take a long time.
Fixing Burst Pipes
If pipes are still frozen: If the pipe bursts but is still frozen inside, shut off the water, either at a shut-off upstream or at the main. Unless you know how to remove and replace the section of pipe, call a plumber.
If water is gushing: If water is running out of the breech, take the same steps to shut off the supply and call a plumber.
If, however, your basement is flooded or it's been raining in your townhouse for three days, you've got a second layer of problems to solve and you'll need to have the problem not just cleaned up but remediated. You can call a remodeler who may be able to manage the situation, but you ay also call your homeowner's insurance company and/or a company that specializes in disaster remediation, which we hope you don't ever need.
And, you can look at it this way: preventing freezing pipes might be all the reason you need to take on that kitchen or bath renovation.