Freezing temperatures can be quite an inconvenience: they make leaving the house uncomfortable, may cause your pets to be pretty grumpy, and can keep your car from starting in the morning. But the cold can also do a number on your home, the one place where you are probably expecting to find solace. Frozen pipes are a real threat during prolonged and extremely cold temperatures that can end up damaging your house if you're not careful. And as the season shows no signs of warming up anytime soon, it's helpful to know at what temperatures pipes freeze, and how to thaw them out if they do.
The temperature at which pipes freeze depends on the location of the pipe and how well-insulated that area of your house is. The International Code Council (ICC) advises that "in areas where freezing weather is the exception rather than the rule, the 'temperature alert threshold' is 20 degrees [Farenheit]." This mostly applies to warmer-climate areas like The South, and to structures that are properly built. On the other hand, most houses found in climates that are prone to freezing and below temperatures are designed to protect their pipes from freezing by positioning them strategically so that they stay insulated, but careless building, or the fact that they are very old, can lead to gaps in that protection. In addition, "extremely cold weather and holes in the building that allow a flow of cold air to come into contact with pipes can lead to freezing and bursting," reports the ICC. Having grown up in a house built in Maine in 1811, I can attest that said gaps and holes in the building caused our pipes to freeze fairly regularly during the winter, resulting in a lot of time spent with a hair dryer pointed under the kitchen sink.
While you might be tempted to think that a frozen pipe is pretty harmless — it's just water, after all — it can cause a lot more damage than simply not having running water for a short while. The Red Cross cautions that freezing water expanding can cause pipes to break and burst, leading to potential flooding in your home. "[Frozen water] expansion puts tremendous pressure on whatever is containing it, including metal or plastic pipes. No matter the strength of a container, expanding water can cause pipes to break." If the pipe breaks and then thaws while you're away, you can come home to a nightmare of a flood in your house.
So, was my parents' tactic of using a hair dryer the best way to cope with sub zero temperatures? A more thorough insulation of their centuries-old home might have been a better defense against the winter cold. Another tactic, if they would not have the water running for some time, would have been to drain the water from any outdoor water supplies that can freeze, and insulating any exposed pipes that are susceptible to freezing with things like pipe sleeves or heat tape. Of course a local plumber in your area would know the best solution to handle your specific situation.
But let's say you're in a mid-polar vortex or haven't the time or resources to make any of these adjustments immediately. To prevent your pipes from freezing, you can start by running a small drip of water from faucets. It may sound silly, but running water can't freeze, so by dripping hot and cold water from the bathroom and kitchen sinks, you'll prevent the water from freezing and release water pressure in the pipes, advises Today's Homeowner. Additionally, if you're going away during a cold snap, set your heat to no lower than 55 degrees to keep pipes from freezing.
And if you are met with a dreaded frozen pipe, it turns out a hair dryer, heat lamp, or space heater can thaw a pipe quite well. Run the water while you're thawing the pipe (it helps melt the ice within) until full water pressure is restored. The Red Cross also warns not to use anything with an open flame, like a blowtorch, kerosene or propane heater, or charcoal stove because they can cause a fire, which of course, would be just as bad as a flood!
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