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Science and the Environment

Take Steps to Avoid Frozen Pipes During Cold Weather

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The cold weather over the last few days has left some with a common problem:  frozen pipes.  If you’ve been fortunate to avoid the problem so far, there are things you can do to make sure it doesn’t happen to you as the cold weather continues.  KSMU’s Michele Skalicky has more.

Even though temperatures tomorrow and Wednesday are expected to get above freezing, Thursday’s and Fridays highs are expected to be in the 20s, and that’s when frozen pipes are possible.  Water expands as it freezes, and that expansion puts tremendous pressure on whatever is containing it, according to the University of Missouri Extension.  That pressure can cause pipes to break.

Bob Schultheis is a natural resource engineering specialist with MU Extension.  He says some pipes are more susceptible to freezing than others such as those in unheated interior areas such as crawl spaces, attics, garages and pipes that run against exterior walls.  Pipes that freeze most often are ones that are exposed to severe cold, like outdoor hose bibs and water supply pipes.

Schultheis says frozen pipes can cause problems for homeowners.

"Well, the kinds of things we typically see will be water leaks.  These can occur in the walls. They can occur in the ceilings or under the house, and, not only the structural damage that causes, but also it can set the house up for some other problems as we get high moisture situations, we can encourage mold growth in the house, particularly behind the walls if we don't dry those areas out," he said.

He says the back side of drywall is a perfect breeding ground for mold.

Fortunately, there are simple ways to try to prevent pipes from freezing, according to Schultheis.  He says some simple things you can do are to disconnect the water hoses from outdoor faucets, keep the doors on unheated garages closed and install weather stripping around the doors, and:

"Kitchen or bathroom cabinet doors that might, particularly if they're behind exterior walls, or if you have overhead piping, leave those cabinet doors open that way the interior home temperature air can circulate under the cabinets, and it'll help keep the pipes from freezing and then, one of the ways we can, when it gets extremely cold outside, if you'll let the cold water trickle from the faucet," he said. 

He says the water temperature will typically be in the 50 to 60 degree range which will keep pipes from freezing.

Schultheis says you should keep your thermostat higher at night instead of lowering it, which some people do.

If you turn on a faucet and no water comes out, it’s probably a frozen pipe.  There are things you can do to try to fix the problem yourself.

"You can use an electric hair dryer or a portable space heater as long as you can keep it away from flammable materials or you can wrap the pipes in towels that are soaked in warm water.  Do not use a blow torch or a kerosene or a propane heater or a charcoal stove or any kind of open flame device because what can happen there is it can either melt the pipe if it's plastic or it can cause the water in the pipe to boil and the pipe can actually explode," he said.

He says if you’re unable to locate the frozen area or you can’t get to the pipe, you should call a licensed plumber.

If you have a frozen pipe, you should keep an eye on other pipes to make sure they don’t leak.  Pipes that are buried in the ground can also freeze and crack.  He says to be on the lookout for wet spots in the yard and to look for any leaky spots or drips in the house once temperatures rise above freezing.  According to Schultheis, you should know how to shut off the water supply to your house if that happens to avoid any water damage.  For more information, contact Schultheis at 859-2044 or visit extension.missouri.edu/Webster