Prevent your pipes from bursting during a freeze: How many faucets should be left dripping?

Published: Jan. 7, 2017 at 4:28 PM CST
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Wrapping up a pipe can keep it from freezing

One of the biggest concerns during freezing temperatures is protecting your pipes.

Here's the issue: As water freezes it expands. That expansion can put pressure on whatever is containing it, including metal or plastic pipes. The expansion - particularly the increase in pressure from ice build up - can cause pipes containing the water to burst.

The biggest issue is with pipes that are exposed to the extreme cold, such as water supply lines in unheated interior areas like basements and crawl spaces, attics, garages or kitchen cabinets. Pipes that run against exterior walls that have little or no insulation are also subject to freezing - and bursting.

Here's what you need to do to make sure you don't end up with frozen pipes - and a giant mess. Tips are from the Red Cross:

Remove, drain, and store hoses used outdoors and make sure you've closed inside valves supplying outdoor hose bibs. Disconnect your hose and keep the outside valve open so that any water remaining in the pipe can expand without causing the pipe to break.

You can use a "pipe sleeve" like those sold at home repair stores or even heat tape other specially made products to protect exposed water pipes. Even newspaper can provide some degree of insulation and protection to exposed pipes.

Check around the home for other areas where water supply lines are in unheated areas. Look in the basement, crawl space, attic, garage, and under kitchen and bathroom cabinets. Both hot and cold water pipes in these areas should be insulated.

Keep garage doors closed if there are water supply lines in the garage.

Open kitchen and bathroom cabinet doors to allow warmer air to circulate around the plumbing. Be sure to move any harmful cleaners and household chemicals up out of the reach of children.

When the weather is very cold outside, let the cold water drip from the faucet served by exposed pipes. Running water through the pipe - even at a trickle - helps prevent pipes from freezing.

Keep the thermostat set to the same temperature both during the day and at night. By suspending the use of lower nighttime temperatures, you may incur a higher heating bill, but you can prevent a much costlier repair job if pipes freeze and burst.

And the most important question...should you leave a faucet dripping?

Yes, it's recommended you leave a faucet on with water at a drip to keep pipes from freezing. If you know where the water comes into your house, turn on a faucet at the opposite end to keep the water circulating. You don't have to leave a stream of water running, a drip can help prevent (but not totally eliminate) bursting pipes.

What to do if you suspect a frozen pipe

If you turn on your faucets and nothing comes out, you may have a frozen pipe. If that happens, leave the faucets turned on and call a plumber. If you think your pipe has burst, turn off the water the home's main shut-off valve but leave the faucets turned on before calling in your plumber.

How to thaw frozen pipes

If you turn on a faucet and only a trickle comes out, suspect a frozen pipe. Likely places for frozen pipes include against exterior walls or where your water service enters your home through the foundation.

Keep the faucet open. As you treat the frozen pipe and the frozen area begins to melt, water will begin to flow through the frozen area. Running water through the pipe will help melt ice in the pipe.

Seal any leaks that allow cold air into your home where pipes are located. This is an issue around electrical wiring, dryer vents and pipes.

Apply heat to the section of pipe using an electric heating pad wrapped around the pipe, an electric hair dryer, a portable space heater (kept away from flammable materials), or by wrapping pipes with towels soaked in hot water. Do not use a blowtorch, kerosene or propane heater, charcoal stove, or other open flame device.

Apply heat until full water pressure is restored. If you are unable to locate the frozen area, if the frozen area is not accessible, or if you cannot thaw the pipe, call a licensed plumber.

Check all other faucets in your home to find out if you have additional frozen pipes. If one pipe freezes, others may freeze, too.