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Frozen Pipes... an ounce of prevention

Water is one of the few materials that expands when it freezes. Understanding this fundamental principle of physics is key to avoiding damage to your home during cold, winter months. An estimated quarter-million households sustain significant property damage and untold aggravation each year because of water pipes that freeze and break - damage that probably could have been avoided by following a few precautionary steps.

Why pipes break

Ask ten people why water pipes break in cold weather and the majority, if not all, will tell you that freezing water pushing against the walls of the pipe causes the failure. Not true. Rather, water pipe breaks occur when freezing has caused a complete blockage somewhere in the line. As that frozen block expands, it exerts pressure on the water between the blockage and the closed faucet - pressure that has no place to go, but OUT! So pipes don't break where the ice has formed - they break downstream between the block and the closed faucet.

Another important fact: it does not take bone-chilling, sub-zero temperatures to break water pipes. Studies have shown that the risk of water pipe failure begins at 20 degrees Fahrenheit.

Protecting your pipes

Pipes in attics, crawl spaces, and exterior walls are most susceptible to freezing. Insulate them. This is one time when the "more is better" rule is actually right. Also, check for air leaks around electrical wiring, dryer vents, and foundations. Use caulk and insulation to keep the cold air out. In severe cold or high wind, even a small opening can let in enough cold air to freeze a water pipe.

If you have pipes running behind kitchen or storage cabinets, open the doors during cold spells. Let the warmer air circulate around the pipes.

Relieve the pressure. If you suspect water is freezing in a water pipe, open the faucet. Even a slow drip will release the pressure that can build up between an ice block and the faucet. While the slow water flow will not prevent freezing inside the pipes, it will prevent the pressure build up that breaks pipes. Where both hot and cold water connect to a faucet, make sure both contribute to the water flow since both are subject to freezing. Even if the drip stops, leave the faucets open.

If a pipe breaks

Turn off the water at the main shut-off valve, which is usually located near the water meter or where the water main enters the house.

Leave the faucets open until repairs are complete.

Don't try thawing a frozen pipe with an open flame. You risk further damaging the pipes, or worse, adding a house fire to an already difficult problem. However, you can use a hand-held hair dryer to thaw frozen pipes. Slowly apply heat to the frozen pipe starting at the faucet end and working toward the coldest section.

Common sense: don't stand in water while using an electric appliance like a hair dryer.

Travel considerations

If you leave your home for an extended period during the winter, set the thermostat no lower than 55 degrees Fahrenheit. Also, have a friend or neighbor regularly check the house.

Best precaution: drain the water system while you are away.

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