Nova Scotia

Pipes freezing? Here's how to stop it

Freezing wind and low temperatures can wreak havoc by freezing pipes in a matter of hours. Here’s some tips to avoid an expensive plumbing bill.

Freezing wind and low temperatures can wreak havoc for homeowners

Geno Pace, an NSCC plumbing instructor, says half the calls plumbers get this time of year are related to frozen pipes. (Courtesy Nova Scotia Community College)

Sub-zero winds and low temperatures can wreak havoc by freezing pipes in a matter of hours. Here’s some tips to avoid an expensive plumbing bill.

1. Keep the heat on.

Geno Pace, who instructs plumbing courses at NSCC, says piping problems can be avoided by keeping the heat on and preventing areas from cooling down close to the freezing mark. He recommends keeping thermostats turned up to 15 C and monitoring to ensure room temperature doesn’t fall below 10 C. He also says wind can drive cold air into open spaces such as hose bibs, freezing the pipes in the wall behind.  

The harder it is to find the leak, the longer it will take to isolate and fix it. But Pace says the faster people find and deal with the problem, the better.

"Sometimes that means removing the gyprock so you can get heat up into your piping systems. Typically it's not only frozen in one spot, it can be two, so you've got to repair the plumbing system as well as repair the building," he says.

2. Warm up problem areas

Pace says older homes are more vulnerable because the piping is often closer to exterior walls. But newer homes are not immune. Newer plastic piping may expand when it freezes and then contract when it thaws, causing it to split and leak. Copper piping also splits, which can cause several leaks when ice thaws.

He says the key is identifying drafty areas and ensuring they don’t cool down. This may mean putting electrical space heaters in crawl spaces, insulating windows and electrical outlets and keeping an eye on patio doors.

"There's radiation underneath the patio door and you leave that open a crack, half and inch or so, for half hour or so; that can freeze the radiator," says Pace.  

He says heaters, tracers and insulating pipes may also help delay freezing long enough to get people through a cold spell.

The Red Cross also recommends keeping cabinet, closet and attic doors open to allow warm air to circulate. Keeping garage doors shut can protect interior pipes.

3. Run water frequently

Pipes break when water freezes and expands. Running taps frequently keeps it moving and can help reduce damage.

"If you’ve had freeze ups before, you may want to go to a tap every half hour and just run it for even two or three seconds, just to keep the water running and it won’t freeze as quickly," says Pace.

He says on very cold days, leaving a home empty for eight hours straight could lead to freezing. Allowing water to drip a bit may prevent freezing.

4. Line up housesitters

People jetting away on southern vacations may want to take extra precautions so they don’t come back to big bills.

Depending on insurance policies, homeowners may be required to have someone physically in a home within a certain time frame in order to get coverage.

Pace says house sitters should run taps throughout the house and check to ensure rooms aren’t cold.

He also says it’s possible to install thermostats that have lights that could signal to neighbours when there are heating problems.

5. Flames don’t always melt ice

In the event pipes are frozen, Pace says homeowners should avoid reaching for a blow torch. He says that could cause more damage — not to mention danger — due to flammable insulation materials and plastic pipes that are likely to melt.

He says hot air is a better option. Most plumbing companies have de-thawing equipment to thaw lines safely.

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