Three emergency steps to keep your pipes from freezing, and two bonus tips

It’s COLD out right now. Not personal-record cold; not toss-boiling-water-out-and-make-snow cold… just hard-to-move-the-stick-shift cold and drive-on-the-lake cold. -20° F (-29°C) at 6:00 this morning. 

It’s freeze-your-pipes-cold.

This is my first winter in this house, and it’s not fully winterized. We have 4 inches of insulation where we should have 16 inches, there is frost creeping in around the door frame and a legit waterfall of ice trying to grow on a bedroom window sill. Even if you haven’t had time or money to get your house ready for winter, do these three steps to get through a cold night without your pipes bursting.

  1. Increase airflow to your pipes. Open the cabinet doors to your kitchen and bathroom sink. If you have a plumbing access door anywhere open that. Open a closet if the back wall is against your pipes. You want the ambient air temperature in your house to circulate against those pipes as much as possible.
  2. Keep the water flowing. This is the one time to be grateful for a dripping faucet! If you keep the water flowing through the pipes it will not freeze as easily. Think about how a puddle freezes before a running stream does. Don’t give those crystals time to form! Go to all of your water faucets including the shower and turn both hot and cold on to a slow drip or trickle. Leave them on all night even if you pay for water.
  3. If this isn’t good enough break out a hair dryer!  Check each faucet first thing,  or even during the night. If any of the pipes don’t turn on or seem to be flowing very slowly, use the hair dryer to gently warm the pipe, directing the hot air back and forth across the length of the pipe that you can reach. This is good enough reason to own a hair dryer even if you don’t have hair.

These steps are no substitute for good insulation, a warm house, and thorough winterizing. But I grew up in a 1974 trailer in Vermont and can’t count the mornings I spent running a hair dryer on the bathroom pipes to get everything moving again.

If you have a few hours and a little money to prepare for the cold snap, take two more steps to keep your pipes in good shape.

  1. Insulate your pipes. You can buy a preslit tube of foam insulation to surround the pipes for less than a dollar per six feet. Insulate every inch you can get to, especially any that are in a crawl space or other unheated area.
  2. Warm it up Buy a few electric space heaters. These things are energy hogs, so if you are used to circuits tripping or fuses blowing in your house make sure to get small space heaters! Open the bathroom and kitchen cabinets and aim a space heater at each one. Don’t forget to take flammable items out of the way — no toilet paper under the bathroom sink!

In this current cold snap our furnace quit working for about 2 days. We had two space heaters from our days in an unheated camper. This is the biggest house we have had at 960 square feet, so we ran out to Walmart to get some more. We pointed space heaters at the kitchen and bathroom sinks, set up a third space heater in the basement near the water supply and all bundled into a single bedroom with the fourth space heater going there. We stayed  warm until the furnace repair tech could get there. And happy to report, the fix was only $130! We are back in central heat business, but we will still leave the cabinet doors open until the cold snap breaks.