A frozen pipe isn’t itself a problem. After all, copper pipes can get to temperatures far below the freezing point of water without cracking. But too often it is accompanied by an ice blockage inside the pipe. That can lead to a pressure build up that ultimately bursts the pipe. Not only do you lose the ability to get water from the faucet, but now have the larger problem of clean up and repair.
In many homes, the odds of a burst pipe in winter from low temperatures are very low. But others have exposed pipes in crawlspaces or elsewhere. It takes only a modest opening around the base of the house to let in winds that can chill pipes to sub-freezing temperatures.
Even without that exposure, temperatures below about 20F/-6.7C present higher odds of ice forming inside pipes that will plug them up. Fortunately, to prevent that is usually straightforward and typically very inexpensive.
One old-fashioned remedy still works well: opening up the faucets to a slow drip.
Running water is slightly less susceptible to freezing than still water. But the main effect comes from simply opening the valve. That allows air and water to move, reducing any pressure build-up in front of the ice blockage. That gives the pressure ‘somewhere to go’… somewhere other than pressing out the sides of the pipe, i.e. causing a break.
But there’s another old-fashioned saying that’s useful here: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Preventing the pipes from getting too cold in the first place reduces the odds to near zero of having a break.
One way to accomplish that is to wrap them with low-cost insulating foam.
The foam itself supplies no heat. But it helps the pipes and water retain any heat they have. Water and pipes at, say 35F/1.7C, will tend not to go below freezing if they retain the heat present in the water and pipe before the temperatures outside dipped.
The foam comes in different forms. One popular style is a long, flat rectangle that curls into a cylinder. The cylinder formed is the circumference of the pipe. That makes it easy to wrap the pipe along its length and simple to cut the rectangle to the proper length and/or width.
It’s inexpensive, easy to install and easy to replace.
Another method is more costly and a little more difficult to install. But it has the advantage of protecting pipes no matter what the temperature. Foam will only retain heat up to a point. Some is always lost. Installing a heating system for the water pipes is as sure a thing as possible.
There are two basic types: wires or tape along the pipe, and a circulating system.
The first type is simply a wire or tape containing one that sits along the surface of the pipe. Electricity passes through it and heats the wire, which transfers heat to the pipe and the water inside. Costs vary, but if it’s properly installed the method is nearly foolproof.
The second type is a little more expensive, but uses existing facilities. Sometimes it’s already built into the home. In this technique, hot water from the water heater is pumped slowly through the pipes. Cold water is circulated back into the heater. The system operates automatically via an in-built thermostat and pump that is put in the water line.
It costs a little more to run, because the system heats and re-heats water that isn’t being used. But it is the surest way to prevent any ice blockage. Any ice that forms will be quickly melted by the warm water before it can become a problem.