Winter checks: water edition
The biggest hazard to your plumbing during any winter is the water itself. There are several different things that you should look out for so your pipes don’t freeze to their breaking point and your heating doesn’t suffer.
Pipes and faucets
To avoid problems with leaky or otherwise faulty pipes, it’s best to check them before winter, and either apply some tape or call in a plumber to fix them before they can cause bigger problems. To help keep your pipes safe from freezing insulate them with foam padding, and leave the heating on 24/7 if the temperatures plummet outside.
Most people will know to turn their outdoor faucets off as soon as the temperature dips below freezing for the first time. What you may or may not know is that after you close the shut-off valve, you should let all the remaining water run out of the faucet, so it can’t freeze inside. If you have a hose attached, you should remove this, make sure there’s no water in there, and store it safely until spring.
If you’ve already done all this or you live in an apartment without a garden, there is still plenty of water indoors that can freeze. To prevent a potentially dangerous build-up of frozen water, it’s important to keep water flowing from all your taps at regular intervals. To achieve this, you might want to adapt your schedule so that different people shower at different times of day, and your washing machine doesn’t run at the same time as your dishwasher.
If you’re planning to leave for a few days, for some holiday fun, then it’s best to keep heating the house to about 55°F, and either keep taps slightly dripping, find some other way to keep water flowing around the house, or you could shut off the main water valve in your house and drain all the water. Shutting off the valve and draining all the water takes a lot more time and effort than just letting your taps drip, so I wouldn’t suggest it unless you’re going away for quite a while. Even then, make extra sure there isn’t a source of still-standing water that you’ve overlooked.
Even if you don’t go away in winter, don’t forget about vulnerable areas of the house that aren’t regularly heated, such as the basement and the attic. To reduce the chance of freezing in these areas, make sure there aren’t any drafts. This should also help lower your heating bills for the rest of the house. Also, don’t think that just because something is assigned as a hot water pipe, it can’t freeze. Aside from the pipes themselves, make sure your drains don’t get clogged, as obstructions down the pipes can cause water to build up, which can make them burst when frozen.
If your pipes or faucets do freeze, you can use a blow dryer to try and heat them back up again, while also turning up the heaters and letting a small bit of water drip through them. Do not try to use a lighter or open source of fire to unfreeze things.
While telling you to keep water flowing throughout winter might increase your water bills, there are a few things you can do in terms of your water heater settings to help you conserve some energy and therefore money. There is of course the well-worn advice of making sure there are no drafts in the house, there’s plenty of insulation in the walls, and to have windows that are double-glazed. If you can tolerate it, it’s better to wear more clothes rather than crank the heater up during the day. You can also turn your heater down to a low setting during the night, since it’s better for your body to let a warm duvet keep you comfortable. While the heating needs to be on to prevent freezing, that doesn’t mean it needs to be set to a high temperature. As explained in the last post, regular maintenance can also save you from high energy bills.
For a more long-term solution to reducing heating and/or electricity bills, you could look into replacing your water heater with a more energy-efficient system. If you live in an area with hard water, it is extra important to keep an eye on the water heater, since problems with ‘encrusting’ can arise that could prevent the water from flowing as it should.
Out of everything, the water system is your house’s weakest link when it comes to weathering the winter. So keep an eye on it, and don’t hesitate to call in professional help when you suspect a problem, before it’s too late.