DIY Plumbing: Frozen Water Pipes and Main Shut Off Valves
First and foremost, it is always wise to be prepared for a plumbing emergency such as a pipe bursting in your home. Water damage can be extremely costly, not to mention inconvenient. Should you suddenly find yourself in a rapidly flooding home, knowing how to stop the deluge quickly could make all the difference. Do you know where the main water shut off valve is located in your house or apartment? Would you be able to get to it quickly and turn it off when seconds count?
Main Water Valve
You will usually find the main water valve in a basement, crawlspace or other utility area where the main water line enters the home. It is helpful to find and label this valve to be ready for an emergency. Also, it is a good idea to mark the direction to turn it off with a permanent marker or masking tape; remember that seconds will count if a pipe bursts in your home.
Which Valve is the Main Water Shut-Off Valve?
Fixture Stop Valves
Another way to shut off water to a specific fixture, is by using the stop valves directly leading to that fixture. Look under sinks and toilets, behind washing machines or next to dishwashers and hot water heaters.
Where To Find Stop Valves
Again, it is a good idea to label which direction is "off:" Usually the rule "tighty righty/ lefty loosey" as accurate. Use the fixture stop valves when it is clear that the water is coming from that specific source. The rest of your home will still have water in these situations.
Keep Pipes Insulated. Plumbing supplies can be found at Home Depot, Lowes and other hardware stores.
An Ounce of Prevention is Worth a Pound of Cure
Of course, preventing problems in the first place is just as important as knowing what to do when one arises. One of the biggest factors leading to a burst line is a pipe or pipes that have frozen. To avoid frozen pipes, the first step is to ensure that your pipes, especially the pipes along an outer wall of your home, are properly insulated. Fortunately, insulating pipes is a fairly simple task. There are three main ways to insulate your pipes: self-stick insulation tape, tube foam insulation or heat tape. All three are available at your local Home Depot, Lowes or other hardware store.
Self-stick pipe insulating tape can be purchased at any hardware store. Simply spiral the tape around your pipes to cover them adequately. Trim with scissors and wha-la: your pipes are insulated.
Tube foam sleeves can also be purchased at any hardware store. Choose from fiberglass, wool-felt or plastic foam sleeves. Cut and customize them to fit longer pipes, then seal the gaps with insulating tape or duct tape.
The third choice, heat tape, is a bit more involved because it must be plugged in to an electric outlet. Heat tape is good for pipes which are exposed to extremely cold conditions such as external pipes or those in uninsulated outer walls. Wrap the tape in a spiral around the pipe and then plug it into an outlet. Many heat tapes can be pre-programmed to turn on automatically at a certain temperature.
Turn off water to lawn sprinklers and drain the water from them before the ground freezes in winter.
Winterize Your Pipes
Late in the autumn, it is important to disconnect your garden hoses to prevent pipes from freezing just inside the hose spigot. Drain water out of lawn sprinkler systems and turn off water to outside faucets by using the water shut off valve that leads to them.
Seal air leaks that lead into crawlspaces or external walls that may allow freezing air around pipes. Use caulking or store bought insulation to block leaks.
On extremely cold nights, leave water trickling a tiny bit from faucets on outer walls. Also, leave cabinet doors open to allow heat to reach pipes under sinks and other fixtures. Again, outer wall plumbing is the concern here. Keep your heat at a constant temperature day and night. Note: if you live in a very cold climate, your home was probably built with no outer wall pipes.
If you leave home during winter months, it is very important to leave your heat on at minimum of 55°F or 12°C. Also, it is a good idea to have someone check on your house regularly. You wouldn't want to return from vacation to find your basement has become a swimming pool...would you?
Unfreezing Frozen Pipes
If it is freezing outside and suddenly you have no water, chances are that you've got a frozen pipe. It is not too late at this point to prevent a burst pipe.
Leave the faucet turned on; now apply heat to the pipe starting from the faucet and working your way along the pipe. Use a hair dryer and/ or a heating pad wrapped around the pipe. Stop applying heat as soon as water starts to flow again but leave water running slowly for a while to melt all of the ice built up in the pipe. Go back and check the pipes for leaks that may not have shown up immediately. You may want to leave the water running at a tiny trickle if the weather remains frigid so that your pipes don't refreeze.