How to prevent pipes from freezing
Last updated: September 2023
Taking preventative measures, keeping your home heated and letting your water taps drip can all help prevent frozen pipes. For anyone living in an area where temperatures dip below freezing (32˚ F), take a look through our guide to protect your plumbing from freezing.
Why pipe freezing is a problem
Water expands when it’s frozen to a volume of over 9% than in its liquid state, according to Penn State University. When water in your plumbing system freezes, it puts a significant amount of pressure on the pipe material (plastic or metal). This expansion can lead to pipes cracking or breaking, which could damage your home or belongings and lead to costly repairs.
Protect pipes before a freeze
A few preventative measures before freezing temperatures approach could help protect the plumbing in your home. Here are a few steps you could take before it gets cold.
- Look for any exterior cracks, holes or leaks, recommends the Insurance Institute for Business and Home Safety (IBHS)
- Fill any opening with sealant or caulk, but be aware that caulk typically needs to be applied in temperatures of 45° F or higher, according to the Department of Energy (DOE)
- Apply pipe insulation to water pipes in unheated areas, such as a garage or areas where pipes are near exterior walls (e.g., under the kitchen or bathroom sinks), recommends the IBHS
- Add insulation to attics or crawlspaces, recommends the American Red Cross
- Drain outdoor water or sprinkler lines, the American Red Cross points out
- Alert neighbors if you’ll be out of town during cold temperatures, explains the Home Depot
If you're not sure what type of pipe insulation to use, ask your local hardware store – they should be able to help recommend insulation that is appropriate for your home and the colder temperatures in your area. Insulating your pipes should only take a few hours on a small house and can also save 3-4% of annual energy costs, according to the DOE.
It is generally recommended against putting antifreeze in any water lines unless instructed to do so by a manufacturer or installer, as antifreeze can be harmful to people, animals and landscaping.
Take action when temperatures drop
As cold weather approaches, here are a few things to be on the lookout for:
- Tune into your daily weather report, especially paying attention for freezing temperature alerts or other winter weather advisories.
- If a cold snap occurs, be sure to keep exterior doors to unheated spaces, such as garages, closed, says the American Red Cross.
- If kitchen or bathroom pipes are located near exterior walls, leave the cabinet doors open and use a fan to circulate the warmer air around the pipes, states the Red Cross.
- Let taps slowly drip during cold snaps to help prevent water from freezing and to relieve pressure in the event that some water does freeze, says Consumer Reports.
- Consider installing a water leak alarm in areas where you might expect a problem, such as the basement.
How to check for frozen pipes
To check on your pipes, Consumer Reports suggests turning on the faucet . If there's only a trickle of water or, even worse, there's no water coming out at all, then you should suspect a frozen pipe. Check along the suspected pipe for any signs of very cold spots or small cracks/breaks, recommends the Home Depot. You’ll need to work quickly as a frozen water inside of a pipe can cause damage to the line.
If you find any breaks or cracks on your water pipes, turn off the main water supply to the house and immediately call a professional plumber for help.
How to thaw frozen pipes
The source of the freeze is likely near an exterior wall or where the main water supply enters your home, says Consumer Reports. If you notice that water isn’t coming out of a specific faucet and you’ve already checked the line for breaks and cracks, you can proceed with any of the following, according to Home Depot:
- Use a hair dryer on high, moving it back and forth in 12”-16” sections
- Wrap a heating pad around the pipe and turn it up to high heat
- Use hot, dampened towels to wrap the pipe (change these frequently to not lose heat)
- Set up a space heater near the frozen pipe to circulate hot air to it
And, for pipes that are within the wall, you can either turn up the temperature in your home or cut out a small section of drywall to let the warm air reach the frozen pipe, better.
If ever you’re in doubt or feel uncomfortable performing these tasks, call a professional plumber for help. A plumber may also help with relocating certain pipes to prevent these situations from happening in the future.
Frozen pipe FAQs
It is recommended to run a small drip on any faucets in your home (kitchen, bathrooms, laundry areas, etc.) according to Home Depot. This small amount of water movement may help prevent your pipes from freezing.
Water pipes could be at risk of freezing whenever the temperature drops below 32˚ F, but they most commonly freeze at temperature of 20˚ F and below, according to Angi.
You can use specific products made to insulate water pipes, like a “pipe sleeve” or UL-listed “heat tape” or “heat cable”, explains The American Red Cross. You can also check with your local hardware store to see what they recommend for a home in your area.