When it looks like we are about to get into some freezing weather, the first thought that comes to mind is if you have adequately protected your home.  You may have some special considerations for your home, depending upon what systems you have and how they are configured; however, this should get you moving in the right direction.  Whether a system needs protection beyond these recommendations is beyond the scope of this document, so be sure to consult with your plumber or other professional who is familiar with your system and needs.

The needed degree of protection will be very dependent upon the age of your home, (and thus the quality of built-in protection), as well as the temperatures and the duration of the low temperatures expected.

Probably the most urgent need that comes to mind is protection of the pipes in your home.  This may be less of a concern in newer construction where the pipes are normally more thoroughly protected.  In general, you want the pipes to be sufficiently protected to prevent loss of heat so they don’t get so cold they freeze.  In older homes, this may include the need to insure the pipes at the attic, outside fixtures, crawlspace, and garage are protected because, frequently, they are not.  Don’t forget locations such as outdoor kitchens or quarters.  In very old homes where insulation may not exist in the walls containing pipes, and depending upon how cold it is expected to get, this may be more of a problem.

Secondary to the pipes in your home is plumbing in your yard such as pools, fountains, sprinklers, etc.  These should be protected and are much more vulnerable to freezing since they rely mainly on the energy from the ground for protection.  Running pumps for pools or fountains where the water can take on energy from the ground to keep it above freezing can be effective if it can be assured that all plumbing is in use.  Where this cannot be assured, insulation should be applied with care that pumps are kept free of obstructions, which could affect proper cooling.  Sprinkler systems should have exposed plumbing well insulated an in some cases may require warming systems to be installed.

If you must leave your home unoccupied for an extended period during the freeze, consider leaving on the heat sufficient to prevent freezing of the water at the fixtures and at the walls and attic.  If you cannot do this, then winterize the house by draining the water from the plumbing system and adding an antifreeze to plumbing traps.

Be sure your heating systems are in good and safe operating conditions.  By this time you may have already had them checked and have been running them.  If not, plan to have your winter service by your HVAC contractor to be sure the equipment is safe to run.

Check the Weather

The National Weather Service provides information on the weather in your area, alerts, and tips for dealing with the weather.  This is good information and a good start to your research.  You want to know how cold it will get and how long the cold weather will last.  Many systems will survive a few hours of freezing weather but protection will be required for long periods below freezing.

Before the Freeze

  • Protect faucets, outdoor pipes, and exposed pipes in unheated areas
      • By wrapping them with rags, newspaper, trash bags, or plastic foam.
      • If you are unsure about the potential for freezing of pipes at your crawlspace, assuming you have one, cover any vents around your home’s foundation.  This should only be temporary and should be removed as soon as possible.
      • Protect outdoor electrical pumps.
      • Leave them running during freezing conditions to keep water circulating through the ground.  If the system is totally above ground, then drain it.
      • If you have a pool, keep the pumps running and leave your valves set so that you have water flowing through all the pipes.  If this is not possible, insulate the system.
      • Keep fountains running if the pipes are underground.  If all the plumbing is above ground, drain them.
      • Protect well equipment.
      • Drain water sprinkler supply lines where they are above ground.
  • Set your thermostat at a minimum temperature of 55 degrees, especially when you’re gone for the day or away for an extended period.
  • Make sure you know where your home’s shutoff valve is and how to turn it on and off.  If you are relying on the street valve, be sure to have a tool to turn it.  You may want to make sure the valve works and is not stuck as they are infrequently used.
  • You should also cover the pipes in the attic if they are exposed because it can get cold enough to freeze there.
  • Drip the water at your faucets if they are suspected to not be well protected at the attic space or outdoor fixtures.  The theory here is to insure the continuous transfer of heat from the ground into the plumbing system, so this may be less effective on fixtures poorly protected and a great distance from the water supply.

If you must leave your house:

  • Consider turning off your water at the shutoff valve while faucets are running to drain your pipes. Make sure you turn the faucets off before you turn the shutoff valve back on.
  • Use potable antifreeze in the drain traps of fixtures such as toilets and sinks.  The antifreeze should be able to be flushed down the drain when the fixture is put back into use.
  • If you drain your pipes, you will need to turn off your water heater and drain it when extended freezing weather is expected.
  • Set your thermostat at a minimum temperature of 55 degrees, especially when you’re gone for the day or away for an extended period.

If Your Pipes Freeze

  • If a pipe bursts and floods your home, turn the water off at the shutoff valve (street).  Call a plumber for help if you can’t find the broken pipe or if it’s inaccessible.  Don’t turn the water back on until the pipe has been repaired.
  • If the pipe hasn’t burst, thaw it out with an electric heating pad, hair dryer, portable space heater, or towel soaked with hot water. Apply heat by slowly moving the heat source toward the coldest spot on the pipe. Never concentrate heat in one spot because cracking ice can shatter a pipe. Turn the faucet on and let it run until the pipe is thawed and water pressure returns to normal.
  • Don’t use a blowtorch or other open-flame device. They are fire risks and carbon monoxide exposure risks.