Don't 'Fall' Behind on Plumbing Maintenance

September 15, 2005


NEW YORK, NY— Cool autumn weekends are ideal for catching up on home maintenance projects that were better avoided during the dog days of summer. One item that should be on every homeowner's "to do" list is protecting your home's plumbing system from cold temperatures, which can cause pipes to freeze and burst.

Frozen pipes aren't just a problem in the North. Houses in warmer climates are also at risk because they typically don't have sufficient insulation to weather sudden winter cold snaps. And despite some claims to the contrary, all plumbing materials -- including plastic pipe -- are at risk of damage from freezing when temperatures plummet.

Preventing 'Pipesicles'

Exposed plumbing in unheated basements, crawl spaces, attics and garages is most at risk for freezing, according to Andy Kireta, Jr., national program manager for building construction with the Copper Development Association (CDA). Copper tubing, which is used to distribute fresh water in the vast majority of America's homes, can withstand expansion from freezing several times before bursting. Tests show that water filling a 1/2-inch-diameter annealed copper tube may freeze as many as six times, and 2-inch pipe up to 11 times, without causing damage. However, this does not mean homeowners should allow their water lines to be subjected to freezing.

Plumbing freezes often occur when a home's water supply is inactive -- for example, overnight when people in the house are sleeping, or when everyone is away from home on vacation. The water that is always present in your pipes will freeze when exposed long enough to frigid temperatures. This is bad news for plumbing because extreme cold makes materials brittle and liquid expands when it freezes, a dangerous combination that can cause all types of plumbing tube to crack or burst open, spilling water everywhere.

Fortunately, there are solutions to help prevent pipes from freezing. These include the following:

  • Wait for a windy day and do a thorough inspection of your home (especially the basement) to determine where air is getting in. Wherever you find gaps, apply inexpensive caulking compound to seal small leaks or use expanding aerosol foam insulation for larger openings. If you can feel the wind blow in a ventilated crawl space or attic, apply insulation only around the pipes to avoid trapping moisture in these areas.
  • Local home centers and hardware stores sell pipe insulation sleeves that protect plumbing tube from the cold. Buy the proper sizes matched to the diameters of the pipes you need to protect. (Plumbers caution that pipes can still freeze with these products, so make sure you've also plugged any leaks where cold air is entering the house.)
  • For plumbing elbows, where two pieces of pipe join together at a 90-degree angle, wrap fiberglass insulation around the pipe and secure with duct tape. (This is an important area to protect because freeze breaks frequently happen at joints, elbows and tees.)
  • If your kitchen sink is located on an outside wall, leave cabinet doors under the sink open during cold spells to help keep pipes warm. A layer of foam insulation board fitted tightly against the back wall of the cabinet will also keep the cold from seeping through to the pipes.
  • Make sure you don't leave any windows open in a basement near exposed pipes.

Before temperatures drop, you should also disconnect and drain garden hoses, as well as swimming pool and lawn sprinkler water supply lines, and shut off the water supply to all outdoor water spigots. The water shutoff valve for outdoor spigots is located inside the house -- usually in a basement or crawl space. Leave the spigots open to drain any water that may be in the line.

Thawing Out

If you do get a frozen pipe, use only the amount of heat from a hair dryer, heat gun or vacuum cleaner to thaw it. Never use a propane torch. Fires can start this way when heat or sparks ignite flammable items nearby. Before applying heat, open the fixture or faucet that is affected by the frozen pipe to allow steam created during thawing to escape. Gradually warm the pipe by moving the heat source slowly over the entire length of pipe, starting at the faucet end. Electrical heat tapes also may be used to thaw frozen pipes, or to protect exposed plumbing lines at risk from freezing.

A home is one of the biggest investments that most people ever make. Protecting your investment by performing regular maintenance and repairs is time well spent. For information on residential copper plumbing tube, visit the Copper Development Association's Web site,, or Copper In Your Home section specifically.