Ask the Expert: Why do pipes burst in the winter?
When water freezes, its molecules crystallize into an open hexagonal form which takes up more space than when molecules are in their liquid form. Meaning water molecules expand as they freeze and create pressure inside your piping. As the ice expands, it pushes water towards the faucet, placing immense pressure between the ice blockage and the faucet. Eventually the pipe ruptures under the pressure, typically in an area where there is little or no ice.
Once temperatures fall below 32 degrees Fahrenheit, especially for an extended period of time, your piping is more vulnerable to freezing. Piping located in areas outside of building insulation, and in unheated interior spaces, like basements, attics and crawl spaces have the greatest risk of bursting. Directing heat or insulating pipes with fiberglass or foam sleeves can help prevent them from bursting.
It is not always easy knowing if you are at risk for freezing pipes. You may have purchased a new home and are unfamiliar with how frigid temperatures affect your comfort or your homes durability. Or the insulation around your piping could have deteriorated over time or been damaged by a rodent in your crawl space, attic or unheated garage. If you’ve made repairs or renovated a bathroom or kitchen, some insulation could have accidentally been removed when work was being done, and now piping may be exposed to frigid temperatures.
It is important that when repairs are made near or on any water piping near the outside walls of your home that you inspect the repair to make sure the insulation has been properly reinstalled, or new insulation has been added.
If you have an outdoor hose spigot, turn off the water line inside your home before the winter, and then empty the line outside to ensure there is no water left. This will ensure that your spigot or water line will not freeze. This can sometimes be a serious issue when water is left in the line and the split in the piping happens inside your home.
It is easy to identify a frozen pipe where there is a faucet at the end of it – if there is no running water – it is frozen. If it is a heating pipe, you will know it is frozen when there is no heat coming from your baseboard – water will seize to flow from the point where the pipe froze. Sometimes, you will not know that your pipes have frozen or that a problem exists, until outdoor temperatures rise above 32 degrees Fahrenheit. That is when the frozen piping melts and water leaks out where the split or crack occurred.
Water leaks are one of the most damaging types of loss to a home. It is important to inspect and make sure that during frigid temperatures that all faucets, water outlets, and heating pipes are in good condition and have not frozen. It is also important that on the first warm day after a cold spell that you are on high alert to make sure your piping is not leaking. The sooner you catch the leak, the better off you will be.
If you purchase a home that has a crawlspace, check to see if there is piping that may be subject to freezing temperatures. If so, you may want to consider rerouting the piping from the crawlspace into an insulated wall or area of your home. If it is determined that it is too costly to reroute the piping, or it just can't be done, see if you could seal off the crawlspace and reroute a heating duct to allow warm air to keep the space above freezing. Or if a crawlspace is attached behind the wall of an existing basement, try transferring some of the heat from your basement into the crawlspace.
You may also want to consider installing heat trace wire kits that can be installed around your uninsulated piping. That will keep the pipes warm when the temperature dips below freezing. These are typically low voltage wires that are safe and do not use a lot of electricity. It is advised that you read the instructions prior to installation or have a professional provide the service. Some of these wiring kits require no insulation on top of the wire and some require insulation. It is very important to follow the instructions for the specific kit you have purchased.
The same holds true for water piping located in an uninsulated attic. In some cases where humidifiers are installed on furnaces in an attic, it is important to use heat trace wire kits to wrap the supply water to the unit.
Still water will freeze faster than running water. If you have a bathroom or kitchen faucet that typically freezes or is located on an outside wall, try leaving the faucet cracked open to allow for water to trickle into the sink. This will help keep your piping from freezing. While this may work some of the time, it is not a permanent fix.
If you have a heating pipe that freezes, try keeping your thermostat set no lower than 68 degrees, even when you leave your home. If you set your thermostat lower, you increase the risk of your piping freezing because when your thermostat is satisfied at a lower temperature setting, water does not circulate through your piping. This still warm water has the ability to freeze in a very short period of time. By keeping the thermostat at a constant temperature, water will circulate more often and not have a chance to freeze.
In any of the cases noted above, you may need the assistance of a professional. A licensed heating or plumbing company can provide you with a complete evaluation of your plumbing issues and provide you solutions on how to maintain your piping system with the best care. As with any home service or home improvement, as your service provider or contractor for an estimate up front for the work being done.
Jim Hall, President – Jim Hall Heating & Air Conditioning
(718) 948- 2456